Old School Media!

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New CC Account Coordinator Lauren Baker (far left), and fabulous summer interns Adrian Bermudez (center left) and Elie Sonnenblick (center right), with Account Executive Eri Mizobe (far right) are pictured here prepping a book mailing to music and entertainment press – the autobiography of Rick Hall, founder of the legendary FAME studios credited with creating the Muscle Shoals sound.

PR Breaks Through At Cannes. Or Not.

PR agencies were celebrating this year at the Cannes Lions, the annual ad tech extravaganza that honors creativity in advertising, marketing, and (sometimes) public relations. 2015 was a good Cannes for PR, which has been persistently overshadowed by splashy paid marketing campaigns submitted by global ad agencies.

PR jury president Lynne-Anne Davis noted a “dramatic elevation of force” for public relations, and it’s true. Many of the winning campaigns had powerful social and earned media components. The PR Grand Prix went to the much-lauded Always #Likeagirl campaign from P&G, which broke new ground with a 60-second spot during the Super Bowl – certainly a first for a feminine care brand – and amplified its message of female empowerment with an iconic hashtag campaign.

It’s advertising, not PR. But does it matter?

The only problem here is that #Likeagirl, which looks to change the meaning of the phrase from a jibe to an affirmation, debuted as paid advertising, and the concept was created by ad agency Leo Burnett, which handles creative duties for the Always brand. And it’s not unusual. As AdAge reports, of the 17 winning campaigns for PR at Cannes, fewer than five were entered by PR agencies.

So the natural question is, are these lionized campaigns examples of great marketing with a PR component, or do they represent concepts truly birthed and executed by PR teams? Shouldn’t the top PR award go to a PR agency, or doesn’t it matter?

It’s open to debate. The global PR firms and ad agency parent companies who spend beaucoup at the festival want very much to claim credit for the PR awards, since they elevate their agencies in the eyes of the community and may help them crack the big marketing budgets. But as they say in Cannes, the jury is still out.

The strength of PR – broadly defined – at the festival points out a few things for sure. First, the industry is still an underdog. PR budgets are a fraction of paid media campaigns, and PR rarely leads in conceiving integrated programming. But like the girl in the Always spot, we’re determined to crash the club. A handful of global public relations agencies are clearly ready to step up, invest in Cannes, and take ownership for what Davis calls “earned trust through influence and authenticity.” And most importantly, it shows that the lines between PR and brand reputation and the disciplines of advertising, marketing, and digital are hopelessly and permanently blurred.

For the business of public relations, maybe that’s not a bad thing.

PR Campaigns Pop On Independence Day

The Fourth of July can bring a lull for many businesses, but for some, PR campaigns go into overdrive, peaking just before Independence Day.  Savvy PR agencies with clients in categories from grills to wearable technology know how to link their brands to the holiday honoring the founding of our country, seizing an opportunity to shine. Here are just a few examples of how.

Safety.  Summer accident campaigns kick into high gear around this holiday, and though you wouldn’t know if from the weather we’ve had in the Northeast, sun safety is a perennial news hook. The Skin Cancer Foundation, sunscreen sellers, and health organizations are well served to remind the public about the dangers of UV rays and the importance of sun protection. New opportunities abound for tech PR pros working with wearable technology with UV-sensing features to help wearers know when they are at risk for sunburn.

Fireworks. Naturally, Independence Day is the biggest stage there is for fireworks. Brands like Macy’s, which hosts the largest fireworks display in the country, as well as smaller communities and brand sponsors can use the moment to earn stories about pyrotechnics, from safety to the people behind the show.

Hot dogs. One specific brand wins the day on the Fourth, and that’s Nathan’s, of course. With its world-famous hot-dog-eating contest, PR and media relations pros have a juicy opportunity to push out angles relating to the spectacle in Coney Island, from publicity about participants and stories on logistics, to features about the world of competitive eating. Only on the Fourth.

Travel. Of course any summer holiday weekend is synonymous with summer vacation and travel. For many, that means increased interest in deals, points, mileage and other ways to be smarter about travel, and the Fourth is one of the biggest holidays. Travel PRs can offer tips or predictions from subject-matter experts, leveraging the opportunity to position them as industry leaders.

Pet care. Yes, for pet owners it’s well known that fireworks or explosions can send Fido into a tailspin, wreaking neighborhood havoc due to nonstop barking or howling. Pet care providers and advocates can get media mileage out of providing helpful dos and don’ts for celebrating the Fourth with pets, or pen a guest column of useful advice on keeping man’s best friend sane during the festivities.

Beer and cocktails. It’s our patriotic duty to celebrate on this day, so expect beer, wine, and beverage alcohol campaigns to pour it on! The holiday’s red, white and blue theme also offers a natural news hook for British brands, from airlines to ales, like Newcastle’s sly “Independence Eve” campaign of years past. Raise your glass to all creative PR endeavors for 2015!

6 Courses Colleges Should Teach PR Students

Effective writing and media relations will always be mainstays of college public relations courses, but the business is always evolving, so curricula must do the same to produce the next generation of consumer or tech PR professionals. I recently gave a lecture on “real world” PR to a class of college juniors and was surprised that the coursework still focuses on securing traditional media. Here are some courses we’d like to see the forward-thinking professors offer their students.

Content Creation: Owned, Earned, Paid, Shared. At one time public relations was narrowly defined by traditional media relations, but that’s a bygone model. Today’s PR students need to know about the concentric circles that make up the different kinds of content that can promote brand visibility. In a nutshell, earned media refers to traditional media as well as blogger relations. Shared includes everything from online influencer engagement to social media platforms. Owned encompasses content under corporate control, like websites, white papers, or a Facebook page. Paid includes sponsored posts, tweets and lead generation. All categories overlap and share a common nexus that is “authority” – the right voice to tell the story.

Social Media Strategies. Sure, college students use Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook every day for personal use, but successful PR grads have to learn how to use the platforms to connect companies with customers. It’s imperative to know which channel best benefits which product/service – Instagram for food porn or travel lust, LinkedIn for exec bylines or career development, for example.  The social media landscape changes daily, it seems, so smart students also need to stay abreast of developments such as Snapchat’s new partnership in Truffle Pig, an agency that will offer a range of creative and content services.

Video Production. Much as today’s broadcast journalists have become their own “camera-people,” the savvy PR student needs to master the craft as well. The immediacy of video means being prepared to capture both staged moments (press interviews; company events) as well as genuinely spontaneous encounters or those that try to be, such as this effort from Gillette/Venus that may just try too hard.

Reading 101. Even if you don’t want to read this study on the positive cognitive effects of reading, suffice to say that nothing improves your writing more than reading. Students need to read everything – sure, they might think Buzzfeed supplies all they need to know – but branching into reading great literary or film criticism, well-constructed Op-Ed pieces and, you know, books, will all help make one a superior writer.

Writing for business. Many PR classes focus on journalistic writing, particularly press releases. Yet, every year more and more journalists and industry types question its relevance. What is never irrelevant is good, concise business writing. Whether it’s crafting a carefully worded missive to a testy business associate, trying to sell in a pricey plan to a marketing partner or simply setting up a meeting with a complicated agenda, PR students need to learn the basics of business writing.

Art of business relationships. Something else in public relations classes that goes untaught, the fine art of establishing and keeping good business relations. This can include thoughts on how to network, how to set up and run productive meetings and even the mastering of social skills. 

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8 Reasons Why Your PR Isn't Working

An investment in a relationship with the right PR agency can pay enormous dividends when it comes to building reputation and even demand. But businesses who can gain from building or engaging a PR team can be hesitant due to uncertainty about outcomes.  As an industry, PR hasn’t always done a great job defining or managing client expectations, particularly when it comes to the earned media piece of a typical campaign. But when PR falls short, it often boils down to a handful of reasons, including those here.

Expectations for the PR investment aren’t clear.  If you’re bringing on a PR agency anticipating vague outcomes like “brand visibility” or “thought leadership,” think more deeply. One company’s visibility is another’s table stakes. It’s best to agree upon specific deliverables and granular messaging for the program, as well as target media sectors, social platforms, and content distribution strategies, among other elements.  Here, the devil is truly in the details.  The PR Council offers some very useful guidelines, including this PR relationship “owner’s manual.”

You don’t have news.  That’s right, working media need something new, timely, or relevant to their particular area. While a PR team’s expertise can help identify and develop the pitch, they need the raw material (example: a new website isn’t news.).  It’s important that you or your PR agency put yourself in the reporter’s shoes and approach media with their needs in mind.

Your story is all about you.  There’s definitely a place for service content, particularly in B2B sectors, but the key word here is service. Whether it’s earned or owned, the resulting article or post must focus on a customer problem or solution, trend, or offer useful information of interest to your end user.  If it’s all about selling, it’s likely to be overlooked.

You’re too ambitious.  Even with news, the earned media outcomes generated by a PR campaign can take time, and the window varies widely from one story or client to another.  A news announcement like a funding round is typically offered to a key media outlet, published, then quickly disseminated more broadly, but a feature story can need months to take shape.

You’re aiming too high.  Not every story is worthy of a New York Times editorial or a national morning show segment.  Media tends to follow media, so sometimes it’s best to start with the long tail and build up to a top-tier trend story or feature.

The pitch isn’t personalized. Top tier media want something on an exclusive basis, and they know when they’re being spammed.  An email pitch sent to hundreds of reporters isn’t as likely to land as a handcrafted pitch created specifically for a Journal, Mashable, or Fox Business.

Your spokesperson is weak.  I’m a big believer in a natural interview style (over-coached spokespersons can be flat), but it’s important that the CEO or senior executive speaking for the company be in command of the facts, offer vivid and relevant proof points, and focus on the most compelling aspects of the interview or story. A cautious or overtly commercial spokesperson is a publicity killer.

Someone else is telling your story (better).  Occasionally clients point out a story featuring a competitor and press the PR team to pitch that particular journalist. It’s nearly always a counterproductive strategy.  Journalists don’t write the same story twice, so the best approach is to find a fresh angle and focus on other media outlets for your pitch.

A version of this post appears on MENGBlend on June 6, 2015.

What Donald Trump Knows About Public Relations

It may seem a stretch that PR people can learn from Donald Trump, whose announcement that he will run for president was lampooned by many in social and traditional media.
But maybe we can. Trump’s threats to enter the presidential race over the years have come across as tired and transparent bids for publicity. But, like it or not, the guy understands his own brand and he knows how to get media coverage. Despite some operations failures, he’s a genius at image-making and self-promotion.

So on the theory that you  never know where your next insight – or blog post idea – may come from, here are some, ahem, “PR lessons” from the Donald.

Control the story. I don’t know Trump, but I crossed paths with him several years ago when a client shared sponsorship credit for a major philanthropic event. He was surprisingly involved in the staging of the news conference and accompanying photo opportunities, down to the details. It was an almost Jobsian mastery of the optics, all for the greater glory of the Trump name. The same attention was paid to this week’s announcement – right down to the “extras” hired to cheer in all the right places (not recommended.)

Know your brand. The Trump brand character is synonymous not only with luxury and excess, but with American achievement, capitalism, and entrepreneurism.  In fact, this presidential bid might just be a way to burnish his brand persona for the next series of product tie-ins or business partnerships.

Timing is everything.  I doubt Trump would have run in the last election, in part because his fourth and final corporate bankruptcy was filed in 2009, and his holdings were likely hurt during the recent recession. By now, however, he’s flush again, even if the actual wealth doesn’t quite equal his claims. And he’s got pretty good media timing – just look at how he upstaged Jeb Bush in announcing his bid.

Define your enemy. Conflict drives narrative, after all. Trump has overdone this one, as he’s overdone most things. He’s picked fights or stoked feuds with dozens of personalities, from Rosie O’Donnell to Jerry Seinfeld (who called him “God’s gift to comedians.”) But when properly focused, telling your story within a competitive framework helps heighten the drama and engage the audience, just like the classic brand “marketing war” campaigns from Coke vs. Pepsi to Uber vs. Lyft.

Take a stand. Let’s face it, many corporate brands are cautious and even boring, particularly when it comes to the issues of the day, and understandably so. So when Trump lambasts public figures or opines about ISIS, it’s refreshing even when misguided. He’s not afraid to say what some others only think.

Own it. “I’m really rich,” is one of the reasons America should consider him, according to the Donald. He’s completely unapologetic about his wealth, his taste, even his hair. He may seem like a cartoon version of a wealthy mogul, but like the Kardashians, he’s living the dream. And he knows that his public currency is tied to a storybook style of affluence. Even as we dismiss the Trump campaign as a sideshow, we’re still talking about him.

8 Simple Ways To Improve Your PR Writing

The public relations profession is surely evolving, but good, persuasive writing remains a core component of good PR on both the agency and corporate side. Since strong writing is a skill to be maintained and improved, a refresher course is always in order. So whether your concern is product PR, tech, crisis management, or public policy, here are eight simple rules to help improve writing for PR.

Read it out loud. Good writing is as much about how it sounds as it is about putting words on a page. If you find yourself struggling to find the right turn of phrase, read it aloud to see how it sounds. It’s guaranteed to clarify what’s working and what’s not. (We can always tell when one of our colleagues is hard at work writing because it sounds like he’s talking to himself; he is not, he is reading aloud).

Trim, cut, and trim again. A common mistake novice writers make is verbosity; young or inexperienced writers falsely equate more words with better writing. More often, the opposite is true. A more concise sentence holds the reader’s attention because there are fewer things to distract from the main idea.

Incorporate a good quote. This one is particularly apt for public relations and journalism. A good quote will grab a journalist’s ear as much as a juicy steak will distract a hungry carnivore. Learn to listen aggressively to the way people speak. Develop a knack for hearing the quote that “sings,” and then (if you’re a PR professional) discover how to create those types of quotes yourself. It’s part intuitive, part practice, and partly a fun approach to listening.

Use varying rhythms. This is a simple trick to refining writing and making it more dynamic. If you find yourself crafting a string of long sentences full of parenthetical phrases, break one up to alter the rhythm. See what a change of pace does to the flow. Oftentimes, it’ll help you hit your key points harder.

Replace complicated words with simple ones. Relying on obtuse words is another rookie mistake. The best writing is writing that’s clear. Be confident enough with your content to say things simply and clearly, rather than resort to flowery language.

Use concrete details. Clear writing is also concrete and specific, rather than vague. Was the audience “large” or was it “standing-room-only in a 150-seat theater?” Is the new product “wildly popular” or did it “sell out of its first run of 1 million in the first two weeks?” For PR purposes, concrete numbers are definitely more likely to earn coverage than vague descriptive terms.

Show, don’t tell. We hear journalists say this all the time. “Don’t tell me your new product is innovative, groundbreaking technology. Tell me exactly what the product does, why it’s different, and how it works.” Substance speaks louder than superlatives (no matter how many exclamation points you use!)

Reread, always. Until they invent an algorithm that can churn out beautiful, intelligent prose (God help us!), writing is still done by humans, and humans are flawed. Always reread and edit before finalizing a piece, or have someone else do a final read.

What Journalists Should Know About PR People

Lauren Sieben’s enlightening post about what PR agency and client-side pros should know about today’s newsroom got me thinking about the flipside. What, if anything, should journalists know about a PR firm, or how communications professionals operate?

While the typical public relations agency hasn’t been as radically disrupted as the traditional newsroom, there are many unique pressures and challenges.

First, PR people value feedback. We’re not just trying to sell a story. We need and even expect feedback. The majority of PR professionals are realistic with clients when it comes to earned media coverage, but we do answer to them, meaning we need a response…any response that will help improve the pitch or simply move on to the next thing.

Your contact might be an ex-journalist.  The number of newsroom jobs over the past decade have shrunk, while PR specialist positions during the same time have grown. Inevitably, some of those newly minted PR pros are former reporters. So the guy at the other end of the email may know more about how today’s newsroom works than you think.

PR people are often a reporter’s best advocate. Reporters bemoan the fact that PRs are known to restrict access to senior executives or even – unfortunately – try to micro-manage interviews. But they should also know that we often champion a journalist’s cause. I can’t count the number of times a client has initially refused to do an interview, or tried to place unrealistic conditions on a sitdown or exclusive access to a story. A good PR professional will work to make it happen, and sometimes it’s harder than it looks.

Your social following is an asset. Sure it is. But an active social following can also help a reporter get first crack at an announcement or in-depth access to a CEO or celebrity. If a journalist or blogger is active on social channels and can be expected to help amplify the story through social sharing with thousands of Twitter followers, for example, that makes the access easier.

It’s our job to ask. For the brand mention, the website link, or the sit-down. Yes, we realize that reporters don’t write headlines, guarantee page placement or care about brand promotion, but it’s the job of any good PR professional to negotiate or push for what we think the story can bear.

We want the same thing you do. At the end of the day, the interests of the journalist and the PR person are aligned. We both want a great story.

6 PR Lessons From The Olive Garden Food Truck

Recently the Olive Garden restaurant unveiled an unlikely sampling initiative that PR agency folk will find either cool or cringe-worthy. The often-maligned (but also beloved) Olive Garden sent a food truck into Boston’s North End – a neighborhood synonymous with authentic Italian cuisine.

The Boston stop was the latest one in a sampling and PR campaign to celebrate the launch of the chain’s new Signature Breadstick Sandwiches. For sheer audacity, as well as some surprisingly favorable – or at least, fair –  publicity coverage in places you might not otherwise hear about an Olive Garden, we’re giving this a thumbs-up.

But there’s no doubt that the initiative was as bold as a spicy marinara. When might a move that’s sure to tempt critics or competitors actually be appropriate? Here are some lessons for determining whether such a calculated PR risk is in your future.

Know your audience.  The last time the Olive Garden garnered positive press with the charmingly viral Grand Forks Herald restaurant review, the haters hated, but Olive Garden fans stood loyally by their breadsticks. An avid North End restaurant-goer may not be its core customer, but there are plenty within of the Northeast media. It all goes to show: if your core audience is unshakable, don’t be afraid to shake up things in the press.

Test the waters. Any successful PR team has media contacts and other experts by whom they could run a bold idea. Soft soundings (or tastings) can help determine what kind of interest there would be and how many different ways a story might play out. Testing these outcomes helps you plan for contingencies as well as hone the story ahead of time.

Consider contingencies. When selling the audacious idea, plan for any possible outcome so all parties are prepared and any finger-pointing can be kept to a minimum. A plan “B” and “C” are also worth considering. On the ground, contingencies include planting audience “ringers” to ensure a robust crowd (and a few positive reviews), and lining up a friendly media contact for first crack at the story.

“Free” trumps all (or most.)  When you can supply your audience with free food, the gesture alone usually engenders a positive reaction. Free samples have a strong proven track record. Just ask Costco.

Have fun with it. The Olive Garden seems to have adopted a (calculated?) lassez-faire attitude about criticism of their offering, conducting very “in-your-face” food demos on sacred ground for traditional Italian foodies and laughing along with the crowd. We think it’s much easier to be favorably inclined to a group that’s having fun rather than treating the whole experience like a traditional boring press conference. And we all know social media favors the fun.

Learn and adapt. As with many PR events, it is often wise to sell in a bold idea as a pilot. This way, the team learns what works and what can be improved as they prepare to roll out nationally or regionally.

6 Ways To Leverage Your PR Wins

Whether you’re on the PR agency team or client side, a new business win or tremendous media placement is exciting. However, the work doesn’t end there – follow these tips to make the most of your successes!

Write a press release. This one’s a no-brainer. Share new business success with appropriate trade media, both within the PR industry and client’s industry, and boost your company’s SEO. Just keep it short and to the point, and dispense with the “empty” quote.

Blog about it. Share success with others and take it a step further by including a tipsheet that recaps the best practices that led to the win. This creates downloadable content for your site. Share the piece through all social channels to further recognition for your brand. If the win was a major media placement, share links as soon as possible on social media. Use applicable hashtags and tag others’ handles whenever possible to increase your reach.

Tell your story in a case study. Include this on your site and in all marketing materials, including your capabilities deck and relevant new business pitches. Focus on highlighting the factors contributing to the success, particularly if it’s applicable to other companies.

Use the news to reach out to potential new clients/customers. It’s a great “non-sales-y” reason to connect in a timely manner and gives you heightened credibility. You can use it as the opening intro for an email, or as a proof point of your capabilities, and even include a link to the case study. Just make sure you insert the win into your dialogue in a way that seems natural and humble.

Incorporate award logos when available. If the PR win is an award, include its official logo on your website in a prominent location (such as a sidebar or the home page). Consider a link to your press release or site announcement in your email signature.

Celebrate the news internally with staff and key stakeholders. Make them proud to be with your company! The more connected to the company they feel, the more likely they are to be loyal, motivated and passionate. A win for your brand is a win for everyone at the company.