Is It Time To Buy A Robot?

That’s the question posed by U.S. News & World Report’s Geoff Williams in a piece which included our client Five Elements, who brought our team on board to introduce its new robot, Budgee, to the market this spring. “The purpose of Budgee is to follow you around and carry your things. It’s simple but to the point, and something people need,” CEO Wendy Roberts tells Williams. See the full story here (with Budgee appearing on page 2).


Research For PR Agency Professionals

The right research is an essential part of many successful PR campaigns. No matter how smart and experienced you are, you’ll encounter projects where you’ll need to work to become a subject-matter expert – and fast. Your company or client might be lucky enough to have in-house research, but otherwise it’s important to know where to find the right resources.

Fortunately, research tools are more prolific and accessible than ever before. But the proliferation of information doesn’t mean it’s all good. Now more than ever, ensure the quality and reliability of your data with these guidelines.

Seek to understand the broader landscape. Whether it’s for your own company or for a PR client, it’s important to understand the business or scientific landscape to be able to listen critically and objectively. Consider the history and context of the product or service, review what’s been said by industry experts, pore over trade and research publications, analyze business and risk sources, and, if relevant, review scholarly or regulatory research.
If affordable, there’s a plethora of high-quality industry and market research out there. But it’s also possible to be fiscally responsible and take advantage of information at little or no charge.

Use open-source information intelligently. Beyond newspapers, magazines, social media, web-based communities, radio and TV, you can access budgets, debates, demographics, hearings, press conferences, speeches, environmental impact statements and contract awards. If your product or service is in a regulated industry, CSPAN schedules should be on your desktop. Conferences, symposia, professional associations and academic papers may often be accessed and provide a trove of high-quality and timely information. Books, professional journals, government databases, and records from public hearings are all good sources.

Open-source information is abundant, it’s free or low-cost, and it provides important context for materials you might not have immediate access to.

Don’t overlook “grey literature.” Defined loosely as unpublished academic information, this is an important resource. It includes:

White papers – Reliable, respected reports on significant or complex issue, intended to serve as a resource to understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision. For example: “Digital marketing governance: From fragmentation, to alignment, to impact” illustrates the standards required to create a globally consistent digital experience.

Green papers – Provisional government reports of policy proposals for debate and discussion, without a commitment to action, these may act as initial steps in policy changes, and will keep you current on policy changes that may affect your client. “Copyright policy, creativity, and innovation in the digital economy,” authored by the U.S. Commerce Department Task Force, assesses the effects digital technology has had on copyright laws, and whether consumers, creators and service providers are adequately served. Such information can be helpful in informing and advocating for your client.

Blue books – A collection of statistics and information. Just about anything can be compiled into statistics, and consumer and opinion information is no exception. Both quantitative and qualitative information is available.

Next time someone asks you or offers to “Google around” to gain insight on a prospect or industry, you can offer some concrete suggestions that might make both of you a little smarter.

Can We Get Better PR For PR?

U.S. PR agencies, as well as our industry overall, are on an upswing as the economy continues to improve. Yet PR’s own reputation may still need some work.

A survey of 2000 citizens for UK PR Week found that seven in ten people call public relations “more spin than substance,” and over two-thirds say PRs can’t be trusted to tell the truth. Because PR people are “paid to influence,” a mere 12 percent find us trustworthy, a distressingly low margin. The survey’s headlines sound very much like similar research done in the U.S. and elsewhere. The only good news is that we rank somewhat higher than politicians, who are mistrusted by 84 percent of those surveyed.

When it comes to reputation, beating politicians isn’t exactly an accomplishment. Yet, average citizens aren’t the people who hire PR agencies, and there are plenty of other professions (see: lawyers) who suffer similar perception issues. So, should the industry care about how we’re perceived by the public, and if so, what should we do about it?

My answer is yes, we should care. As Laurence Evans of Reputation Leaders points out, having a negative reputation is probably bad for business. But beyond that, it’s not healthy for the industry’s future. Young people looking to enter marketing, communications, and general business professions are our talent pipeline. Ambitious young graduates who see PR practitioners as slippery, shallow, or downright dishonest may remove it from their career consideration set.

We’re only as good as our talent, so a sketchy image could harm the entire profession. As those paid to influence, we should be able to do a better job of influencing public perception of our own industry.

So what can be done? PR for PR has been batted around for decades, with prescriptions ranging from a rebranding of the profession to its very redefinition. A few ideas I think have real merit. I’m sure none of the below are new, but they’re worthy of consideration.

Getting PR in more business school curricula. PRSA and other industry groups have done some good work at the university level in getting communications, PR and reputation onto the business track along with marketing and advertising.  The discipline of public relations is increasingly part of overall business communications, and it should be part and parcel of what is taught at the college level to MBAs and other business students. In my view that could help kill the Samantha Jones stereotype that has positioned PR as a party girl occupation.

A pro bono public service campaign undertaken by leading PR agencies. The model for this is the  groundbreaking work by advertising trade group 4A’s in harnessing top industry talent to create innovative anti-drug-abuse campaigns as The Partnership For Drug-Free America. Though the campaign has been criticized by some, the model has worked. I vote for the PR business to take on global climate change in a massive journalist and citizen education campaign.

The industry should hire a PR firm. No, really. The position as AOR (agency of record) for the profession could be seen as a prestigious assignment, rotating or up for review every two years among qualified agencies, under the direction of the PR Council or Institute for PR. As with any trade association or professional services program, it would have predetermined objectives for perception change and a real, industry-funded budget. Who better to take this on than those who have experienced it?

Clearly, it’s not a simple problem and there are no easy answers. But maybe it’s time we treated our own industry like a client.

Why PR Should Pay Attention To Video Sharing

Many prognosticators in the marketing and PR worlds have declared 2015 to be the “year of the video” — super short video, to be precise — when it comes to content. The designation has been a long time coming: as early as 2013, observers were noting a critical mass of “bite size video” and mobile sharing apps had reached the market and were poised to dominate social media.

Assuming complete domination in 2015, there are several reasons why companies and brands ought to consider video sharing in their PR and marketing campaigns. Here is our take on just a few.

It’s popular. By all accounts, video sharing is growing. Some estimates say video accounts for 66 percent of all Internet traffic today and will grow to nearly 80 percent by 2018. New video sharing platforms are constantly entering the market, investors are backing them, and existing social media networks (including Facebook and Twitter) have developed or are developing their own internal video-sharing mechanisms, making it easier to view within their systems. With so many eyes and ears looking at and sharing video, companies and brands simply can’t ignore it as a marketing and communications tool.

It’s easy. Creating video content was once the purview of specialists with fancy (read: expensive) equipment. Today anyone with a smartphone, which is just about everyone, can take high-quality video. And while it’s true that professional video remains in the realm of the professionals, mobile phones have gotten faster, more powerful, and larger in screen size, making them better suited to both view and create high quality video. Mobile networks are faster, too, better able to handle high-quality streaming, and are often more affordable. In 2015, embracing video content is more of a mind shift than a technical one.

It’s a buzzworthy category. New players in the video sharing world have a rockstar profile. Take Meerkat, the video sharing mobile app that gained 300K followers, including a few celebrities, within its first several weeks of existence. The cleverly branded app was all the rage at this month’s SXSW gathering, and is the media darling of the moment, used by tech publishers like Mashable and personalities like Jimmy Fallon. It’s not just PR, either: the fledgling app recently raised $12 million in Series B funding, and is now valued at $40 million.

It’s a smart PR and marketing move to take a little bit of effort to connect your company or brand to a trendy movement that only seems to pick up steam.

For helpful tips on how to create buzzworthy brand videos, download our free tipsheet, “7 Traits of PR-Worthy Brand Videos”

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An SEO Content Refresher For PR

It is more important than ever to integrate a rich content marketing program — one that focuses on search engine optimization — into public relations campaigns for companies and brands that want to grow. But as the strategy becomes more and more prevalent, the rules are changing, and communications pros need to constantly refresh themselves on what’s new, what’s still true, and what’s coming down the pipeline. Here are some recommendations to consider.

Remember the “Golden Rule.” SEO writing is becoming more of a science, but it’s still writing, and the golden rule of good writing is always about the reader. The golden rule of website optimization is to think about “the user first — NOT the search engine,” according to SEO copywriting guidelines from Vector Media Group.

Consider ROI, not just keyword rankings. Since its emergence and expansion over the past 10 or so years, SEO has focused on keyword rankings as a means of measuring how well your site is doing. Today some marketers are calling for more of a focus on return on investment and hard metrics, instead of page rankings, and the sophistication of today’s web technology makes pulling these kinds of metrics a snap. For example, a product placement in a major, top tier publication might win a company thousands of clicks, but no conversions, while a much smaller, niche blog might yield more actual leads because of its hugely engaged audience. Knowing which one is which helps focus precious resources and maximize results.

Design for the mobile user. The trend toward viewing pages on mobile devices only grew in 2014 into 2015. Smart phone  screens are getting larger and larger, further ingraining our habit of viewing sites on mobile, rather than at our desks. Most publishing platforms today include basic mobile optimization, making it easy to accomplish, but it’s still good to keep in mind during the content creation stage and make sure your site pages are optimized not just for SEO, but for mobile.

Write for the “long tail.” While web pages are typically optimized for up to three keywords, other key phrases can be included thoughout the copy to pick up on “long-tail variations,” which are the types of phrases users enter into search engines, according to our friends at Vector. For example, “affordable art” might be a main keyword, but people are more likely to search phrases such as, “the best place to buy affordable art,” as well other closely related terms.

Connect content creation to distribution. This piece of advice comes via Forrester analyst Ryan Skinner, who argues that the emphasis on high quality content as a content marketing strategy often leaves marketers with great content that nobody sees. Ramping up distribution, Skinner says, “improves content’s quality, as the feedback cycle accelerates.” He also pays homage to the now-famous quote from Buzzfeed’s Jonathan Perelman: “Content is king, distribution is queen, and she wears the pants.”

But high quality, original content still applies. All that said, high quality, fresh content still earns its keep in an SEO, mobile-ready world. Useful, well-written, relevant content is more likely to get read and shared than content that sacrifices quality.

6 Situations That Call For A PR-Savvy CEO

A new survey of 500 chief executives has both good news and some discouraging findings for public relations agencies; although most CEOs see value in PR, 59 percent say they don’t fully understand the role and capabilities of public relations.

Maybe PR professionals can do a better job of educating the C-suite, not only on the value of PR, but on the chief executive’s own role in the process. A CEO with PR and media skills is an asset to any company, and one who shuns the press may actually undermine its stature.

Some are masters of the game. Look at iconic entrepreneurs like Richard Branson or Steve Jobs, whose reputation lives on beyond his passing. Others must grow into the role, like Deloitte’s Cathy Engelbert, the first female chief of a major accounting firm. For better or worse, a CEO is a steward of a company’s image and reputation.

But most chief executives aren’t like the celebrity CEOs, and they don’t necessarily embrace a role as brand spokesperson. Many lack the time, charisma, or commitment to deal with media.  They don’t trust the press, and they may be wary of social media and its risks. According to a study from, 68 percent of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies have no social media presence.

At a more basic level, they may be confused as to their role when it comes to media and constituency relations. And for communicators whose CEOs aren’t the next Marc Benioff, it can be hard to offer guidance for the top exec. How well a CEO serves as a PR asset is informed by individual temperament, opinions and experience with journalism and social media. But there are times in nearly every company’s history that cry out for the involvement of the a PR-savvy CEO. Here are six. 

To announce a new strategy.  The chief executive will confer more authority—and generate more media attention—than other company officers for a new direction or shift in corporate strategy.  This typically translates into valuable earned media coverage which that may be leveraged to articulate company direction for customers or partners through the megaphone of business or trade press and social media.

To launch a key product.  Technology company CEOs often announce new products at key trade shows or forums, even if it’s just to introduce a senior product executive who will then go through a features overview. The involvement of the top exec tells us this is a priority announcement and a move to watch.

To show leadership during a crisis.  If the company’s reputation is in jeopardy, the CEO should be a visible and steadying presence. In a high-risk situation, a PR-knowledgeable chief executive may not necessarily open up to the news media, choosing to use social media instead to issue a fast response or promise of corrective action. But a truly critical event usually requires a longer-term commitment by the company chief, like then CEO David Neeleman’s “apology tour” in the wake of JetBlue’s 2007 grounding of flights and subsequent slide in popularity.

To advocate during government or regulatory scrutiny.  There are risks here, but in my experience the PR-savvy CEO is typically the best advocate in times of regulatory review.  A clear position on an issue, well articulated at the top, helps advance a company or industry viewpoint, and it offers crucial public support to allies, employees, and customers in what is often a lengthy PR battle.

To manage a corporate transition. It’s important to stakeholders that a new chief executive, or one who takes the helm in an environment of change or uncertainty, make his vision clear. A skilled corporate communications head will use the inherent news value of the change to generate media airtime, op/ed space, or owned content to communicate the company position, manage the transition, and pave the way for a new era of leadership.

To signal a cultural shift.  The CEO acts as Chief Engagement Officer with company employees, particularly during a turnaround.  It’s not usually advisable to go public with internal communications, but there’s often no way to prevent leaks, and it’s best to be prepared. Sometimes it even helps a CEO’s position. This is why Marissa Mayer’s edict against telecommuting for Yahoo employees, which was disclosed in a leaked company document, inadvertently became a business case history. To Yahoo watchers, including the rank-and-file, Mayer’s memo was a metaphor for her larger battle to revitalize a bureaucratic and sleepy company culture, a task where she can use all the help at her disposal.

An earlier version of this post was published on March 11, 2015 by MENGBlend.

Mad Men Enters The 70s And PR Looks Back

The final season of Mad Men advances the advertising and PR industries into the 70s along with fictional agency Sterling Cooper & Partners. The period is considered by many the decade of the “great shift.” America inches away from the public-spirited universalism of the 60s that birthed the Civil Rights movement toward the free-market economy that changed the face of business forever. 

Don and company would have likely had financial clients like the nascent KKR or Drexel, Burnham, Lambert, or even some tech startups like IBM or Atari.  The 70s also ushered in Richard Nixon and Watergate, which spawned an expansive, eager generation of young new journalists, and forever changed the way we “shorthand” any scandal.

And, in 1976, public relations pioneer Rex Harlow sought to define the field, using a grant to investigate 472 definitions of PR and breaking them into concepts. After analyzing his research, he came up with this comprehensive definition:

“Public relations is a distinctive management function which helps establish and maintain mutual lines of communication, understanding, acceptance and cooperation between an organization and its publics; involves the management of problems or issues; helps management to keep informed on and responsible to public opinion; defines and emphasizes the responsibility of management to serve the public interest; helps management keep abreast of and effectively utilize change, serving as an early warning system to help anticipate trends; and uses research and sound and ethical communication techniques as its principal tools.”

From our vantage point in 2015, we offer evidence that the definition still holds today.

“Establish and maintain mutual lines of communication … between an organization and its publics.” With the advent of content development, self publishing, and open conversations via social media, this couldn’t be more true. The Public Relations Society of America, after an extensive process seeking to update its definition of public relations, came up with something very similar.

An outgrowth of the 24/7 news cycle is the ability to keep management on top of or even ahead of news. PR pros can act swiftly and responsibly to help clients become part of a story (as Crenshaw recently managed with client Retale and the Apple watch launch), or offer helpful opinion and commentary to further a position.

“Define and emphasize the responsibility of management to serve the public interest.” “No longer a nice-to-do, corporate social responsibility is now a reputational imperative…” according to an annual survey, and no company can afford to ignore a cause that has meaning to its constituency. For example, much of our work for a leading mattress company focused on providing new beds for returning veterans and disaster survivors.

“Help management keep abreast of and effectively utilize change, serving as an early warning system to help anticipate trends.” Competition for media coverage has never been as fierce, so the savvy newsmakers are on trend or better yet, ahead of the trends. Crenshaw is helping Five Elements Robotics tell its story of creating Budgee, a personal robot for our aging population. Part of a burgeoning niche category,  Budgee is now gaining traction in key senior assistance and retail development trades.

“Use research and sound and ethical communication techniques as its principal tools.” Research has always been the backbone of successful PR campaigns, and methods have only improved through the years. We would bring Harlow up to date here, adding research analytics tools to determine how PR campaigns impact a company’s bottom line. As for “ethical communications techniques?” There are innumerable instances of “bad behavior” in PR, resulting in public shamings our PR forebearers could have never imagined. Here’s hoping major lessons have been learned there.

Top PR Firms Engage In Their Own Reputation Management

Does PR have a conscience? The news this week that Ketchum has resigned as agency for the Kremlin raises the question of whether large PR firms are engaging in some reputation management of their own. Ketchum’s work for Putin’s Russia had attracted negative coverage even before the latest Ukraine crisis and the recent murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov.

Earlier this year, Edelman, the top independent PR firm, announced it would no longer work for the American Petroleum Institute. The move came after the agency struggled to deflect public pressure for mega-firms to cut ties with clients who deny climate science. Edelman’s decision to spin off the ad unit that handles API work was seen as progress by some environmental groups and hailed as a “gutsy business move” by one blogger, who – in a stunning display of hyperbole – compared it to CVS’s decision to discontinue sales of cigarettes.

The response in each case may amount to an effort to protect the reputations of those involved. It’s PR for PR, so to speak. But, make no mistake, the agencies are also protecting the bottom line. If you look closely at each decision, the motives seem more practical than altruistic.

Edelman’s move, for example, simply divests the ad unit handling work for the API. And although API billings had been reported at over $300 million between 2008 and 2012, most of that was for paid media, meaning the value to the agency was probably far less. The Holmes Report notes that the client-agency relationship had “scaled back” over the past year. Edelman is surely aware that major companies like Walmart vet prospective agency partners not only for their hiring practices and other criteria, but to ensure compliance with their strict sustainability policies, so the decision may actually be a shrewd play to attract bigger fish.

Scratch the surface of Ketchum’s decision and you’ll uncover similar motives. Public documents indicate that the agency’s work for the Russian Federation had declined at the end of last year. With its economy teetering and Putin’s very regime threatened by political and fiscal pressure, Russia may be a bad risk in more ways than one. So, the time is right for a principled decision.

Public relations agencies have to stay profitable and grow just like any other business. It’s easy to be cynical about the timing here, and to criticize from a distance. Enlightened self-interest is not a crime. But, as we often counsel our clients, sometimes the right thing to do is also good for business, and not only when it’s convenient. I hope that next time I read about a top PR firm parting company with a client whose ethics or practices run counter to the public interest, it will be more about the enlightened bit and less about the agency’s own reputation.

5 Listicles Clever Enough For PR

The rise (and persistence) of the listicle has some of us PR professionals feeling a bit fatigued. Of course we understand the value of serving up easily digestible nuggets of information to your target audiences, whether they be media, followers, or potential clients or partners. But as with many memes, the ubiquity of the form yields a lot of lists we wish had never been created. To renew our sense that there’s still hope for the form, we’ve found five listicles clever enough to be considered PR-worthy. Here they are.

10 of the Worst Diseases Smoking Causes,” from the American Lung Association’s State of Tobacco Control. Not only because it’s a worthy public service announcement, but because it actually sheds light on some little known facts about smoking, which is what good PR does! Plus, putting useful, health-promoting information into a familiar, popularized form is a clever PR move for an organization whose message doesn’t change too much, making it a challenge to keep communications fresh.

If Classic Books Were Listicles, from Barnes & Noble. It’s especially funny because of the contrast between the forms. “Classic books” couldn’t be more of a foil to the listicle, or maybe it’s just that PR types tend to appreciate literary jokes. Some of our favorites: “The Giving Tree” — 13 Signs Your Friendship is a One-Way Street; and “The Jungle” — 20 Things You Didn’t Want to Know About Where Your Steak Comes From.

Esquire’s “14 Reasons You’re More Likely To Read This Because It’s A List.” An obviously clever move because it both pokes fun at the listicle while explaining why it’s become the “signature form of our time,” as the New Yorker puts it. Not least among them: lists are visually pleasing to our eyes, and the instantaneous nature of our social media-saturated world trains us for instant gratification, which a listicle provides.

The aforementioned New Yorker’s “10 Paragraphs About Lists You Need In Your Life Right Now.” The piece takes the existential approach, quoting Umberto Eco that, “the list is the origin of culture.” Lists make order out of the world, delivering a promise to fulfill one’s expectations.

Granted this is not a “listicle,” but a real list: U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges Rankings. If you’re a recent college grad or the parent of a college-bound child, you’re probably familiar with this exhaustive ranking of schools. Because it’s well known for its rigor and the exhaustive measurements used, earning a place on the list remains a calling card for universities, and the list continues to make headlines year after year.