6 Learnings From A Negative PR Situation

Tech PR pros and others have been buzzing about the recent, highly unflattering feature about Amazon in The New York Times. The piece has triggered debate about whether proactive PR can help prevent or respond to such a situation.

In this case I think PR’s power to prevent or preempt the story is exaggerated, based on the amount of research it contained and the participation by Amazon’s HR chief. But Amazon isn’t a typical company. For most businesses, there are ways to mitigate or at least prepare for a negative story in the making.

Participate, but with caution. When media decide to cover a story, you can’t stop it, but if you participate, you can often exert some influence over the outcome. Don’t waste your time trying to muzzle employees or identify antagonists; journalists will find sources whether you like it or not. So it’s usually better to offer access so as to be aware of what is being said. A good reporter won’t necessarily accept your version of the situation, but they will offer you the chance to rebut or respond. Take it.

Leverage company champions. Supporters of your company, whether cheerleading employees, longtime stakeholders, or super-users of its products and services, can be useful in balancing negative coverage. Good relationships with stakeholders and outside experts are like money in the reputation bank; you can sometimes tap them to help when the pressure is on. Even if you can’t get them in the story, you can be ready to respond after it hits.

Respond to inaccuracies. If a story is inaccurate or seems to distort aspects of the situation, respond.  Move quickly to correct facts, expand where context is absent, or offer another point of view. Although Amazon doesn’t typically respond to negative press, CEO Jeff Bezos did react to the Times piece in an internal memo that was clearly intentionally leaked to the press. Interested parties will be more likely to see your side if they know how you feel, even if they do not agree, and those on your side will feel more empowered to speak up.

Revisit media training for key spokespersons. Senior executives and other media spokespersons should always be prepared for media inquiries, but it’s challenging, because you cannot predict when reporters will reach out for a comment after a story is underway. But the thing to remember here is that most negative developments don’t arise out of nowhere; they’re usually simmering situations or errors that have been made before. A risk assessment and quarterly media preparation is always helpful if a negative situations looms, or simply when key officers need to be updated with fresh information about business practices.

Build a bridge between PR and HR. This is most applicable to stories like the Times article that depicted Amazon’s workplace and culture. But HR will typically feel the repercussions of any negative coverage in the responses of of employees or attitudes of potential recruits. Make sure the HR team has an opportunity to debrief with PR to address concerns and reconnect over communications goals and needs.

Look for the benefit. Sometimes there isn’t one. But many times a company can actually turn a negative situation into positive PR. If the brand or business was unfairly criticized or if it’s been affected by forces beyond its control (like a weather disaster or a rogue employee), it can win sympathy. If it’s responsible for mishandling a situation, or, worse, covering up a mistake, there may be an opportunity to admit errors, be transparent, and ultimately turn the conversation to the fix. Once action has been taken to address the problem, the business may be able to channel that negative visibility into a fresh marketing direction and a new commitment to proactive communication.

Beat The Clock! PR Adapts To Ever-Shortening Attention Spans

If you want an edge in consumer and tech PR, it’s helpful to dabble in some smart prognosticating every so often. We’re taking the opportunity to look at what appears to be a trend guiding the way PR has to adapt – our ever-shortening attention spans. This is evidenced by reports of the “Goldfish Generation” with its “less than 8-second” attention span as well as a recent Pew Study which showed that 39 of the top 50 digital news websites have more traffic to their sites and associated applications coming from mobile devices than from desktop computers and that the average visitor stays on a news site for about three minutes.

With this in mind, here are five [quick!] tips to make your PR content and news as engaging as ever in the age of “attention as currency.”

Make your writing razor sharp. Sure a lot of good PR people can write a press release, but today that skill is less important than writing a pithy pitch (under 200 words please) or a post that pops! Do what the experts do, read the pubs and places you’re pitching – get the style down – and edit, edit, edit. Better still, get a colleague to edit.

Infotainment wins the day. PR teams have so many tools at their disposal to reach target audiences that have enabled us to excel at educating and persuading. However, it seems infotainment, particularly short video and eye-catching images with less text, encourages the most social sharing and “water cooler” buzz.

Perfect your “elevator pitch.” A good pitch should last no longer than a short elevator ride of 20 to 30 seconds, hence the name. We’ve read of attempts to upgrade it to a “skydive” pitch to reflect more of the stakes for getting this communication right! But whatever you call it, the point is to be able to tell a reporter, an investor or a perfect stranger what your company does, or what your product is, quickly and concisely leaving very little to question.

Streamline PR approval processes. Can your management team be trained to act fast when a news opp strikes? Often the key to some great earned media is the ability to newsjack or piggyback on a hot story. But, said “hotness” can have a really short shelf life; think Tom Brady’s ugly court sketch! The NYT Amazon story! Put a process in place to help your team trust your judgement and fast-track approvals to create quick wins for the company.

Think ahead, way ahead. The well-prepared PR team already has 2015 holiday content in the can. That same team is also on top of story ideas to tie into existing upcoming events (elections, award shows, sporting events). At the very least, keep a 3-6 month calendar handy and prep “shells” of outreach for the predictable future.

5 Habits All PR People Must Break

PR is an ever-evolving field, as technology, social, and business mores change the way we do our jobs. Many SOP’s once deemed “must-do” for every practitioner have now become “must-don’t.” Here we examine some “highly ineffective” habits that may be holding PR pros back.

Reaching out to reporters…in the wrong way. There are many ways to determine how individual reporters wish to be contacted. Smart PR people make it their job to know reporter preferences, since it can be the difference between developing an ongoing working relationship or ending up in the journalist’s dreaded “Blocked” folder! Use Muck Rack and Cision to research individual contacts, but best to develop enough of a relationship to find out if they hate getting phone calls (as many do) or really prefer outreach via Twitter or FB (many really do not!)

Neglecting their own PR. Those in the PR business are often the worst at trumpeting their own achievements. Be it blogging, social outreach, or business awards, it’s wise to take advantage of all the arrows in the promotional quiver and burnish your own reputation the way you do for your company or team.

Offering too many solutions. PR people are at their best when they can present a recommendation and make a sound and strategic case for why it will work. One great idea, well developed and articulated, can be much more effective than a smorgasbord of so-so solutions in the name of volume.

Over-relying on the press release. When was the last time you had news that truly warranted a press release? A customized pitch is so much more effective — and without the journalistic conventions – it frees you up to get creative, but keep pitches short and to the point. Reserve releases for major news announcements.

Ignoring the data. Never have PR teams had access to the kind of data we have now, yet not everyone takes advantage of what’s available. Analytics for everything from website visits, content and other downloads and media coverage are at our disposal to help make smarter decisions. All of this good information must be factored into campaign planning, budgeting and reporting.

8 PR Agency Survival Secrets

The stress of day-to-day life at a top PR agency is sometimes exaggerated or even glorified by those of us who make a career in public relations. But like many professional services businesses, it combines the challenges of satisfying clients, bosses, and journalists, often under pressure and against deadlines that seem to accelerate every month.
For the uninitiated, here’s my unofficial list of “secrets” of surviving life in a PR firm.

Get in early.  Banal advice, maybe, but it’s more than just good optics in the agency office environment. Beating the official start of work is particularly useful when your job relates to news, because that news cycle sure isn’t getting any slower.

Don’t expect a 9-to-5 job in PR. By the same token, agency profitability depends on productivity. In theory, an efficient and talented person could ace the job with no overtime required, but that ignores many common facts of PR agency life: after-hours client needs, unanticipated news events, and staff time spent for business development, to name just a few. Anyone expecting regular hours and calm days will be quickly disenchanted.

Overprepare for any client contact.  It’s enormously helpful to prepare for even the simplest client update call or status meeting. Besides, preparation nearly always instills confidence, which leads to better performance.

Be proactive.  Too often young people who know they have a lot to learn hang back and wait to be told what to do. But inexperience doesn’t mean newbies should be passive or reactive. Raise your hand, show curiosity, and make suggestions. Skilled PR professionals need to develop a point of view on questions and issues and make cogent recommendations under time pressure, so daily simulation of that is very helpful.

Respect deadlines. If you can’t deal with deadlines, you shouldn’t be in PR, plain and simple. In an agency, the urgency is heightened because client review and approval time must be built into all materials and recommendations.

“PR” yourself. In any agency, you are serving at least two “clients”: your actual client and your agency manager. In a large and layered environment, it’s wise to treat senior staff like clients – preparing before formal interaction, dotting all the i’s, and anticipating questions. Upward mobility often depends on how you’re perceived within the agency, and that can hinge on aspects of the job that are invisible to clients.

Don’t let them see you sweat. Clients, that is. Early in my career I made the mistake of sharing my concern to a client about a story getting traction, or an event not working well. While managing expectations is essential and honest counsel is a valuable commodity, clients really don’t need to know how the sausage is made. Sharing doubts is counterproductive unless you’ve tried everything and have a Plan B to recommend.

Always be selling. Not overtly, because that’s obnoxious, and hyperbolic promotion of every little PR result can actually undermine your credibility. But in a service business like PR, clients need to be reminded of the value you bring on a regular basis. This often goes beyond earned media placements to include strategic advice, competitive insights, and support for the PR function within the corporation.

5 Habits Of Highly Effective PR Managers

When you work in the PR industry, it helps to have good habits. Habits sound mundane, but they help us stay on track and meet our goals. Stephen Covey’s famous 7 Habits of Highly Successful People memorialized the idea that successful individuals maintain certain common habits, and the same is true for managers who excel in the art of public relations. Whether working in-house as a PR manager — with or without an outside PR agency — or otherwise, those who excel at their jobs seem to have these traits in common.

They are proactive. Taken straight from Covey’s first point, this is a foundational point in PR work. The skill that makes a PR manager most valuable is the ability to anticipate opportunities for one’s company or client before anything has happened. Rather than wait for news to break or new products to be launched, the proactive professional digs deep to come up with ways to tell the story of the company in every season.

They visualize the end goal in the beginning. Sometimes communications work can mean juggling a lot of intangibles, but good managers know how to visualize the goal they are working toward. For example, when crafting a story angle or pitch for media, it’s important to be able to see the final story — and your company or brand’s place in it — in the real world. Working with the end in mind helps develop the strategy and tactics needed to get there.

They read constantly. Public relations flows from knowing what’s current. The best PR managers are natural and voracious “media consumers.” It doesn’t matter how you choose to read, the apps and devices of today provide ample options to stay on top of myriad media. Constant reading has the added benefit of keeping writing skills sharp.

They think “win-win.” Much of good public relations is still earned media, and the very definition of earned media is that it’s not paid for. Why would any media willingly write a positive story for free? Because it’s a win for them, too. Good PR people frame the pitch as something valuable for the media — it’s not only about getting placements for your brand or company, the best PR teams provide an invaluable service to the media (and ultimately readers and viewers), so they come out a winner as well.

They are well organized. It’s impossible to run a successful PR program without impeccable organizational skills. The work is often non-linear (unlike, say, physically building something, or writing code) and can involve multiple people across multiple teams. Add in numerous types of resources, threads of conversation, and data points to consider — without a system that works it quickly goes off the rails.

Top 6 Apps To Stay On Top Of PR Trends

PR professionals tend to be early adopters and tech savvy, which is why we like helpful apps. Much of our work requires us to stay on top of the latest trends and news, both within PR and our clients’ various industries. What’s happening in the news can offer great opportunities to piggyback and pitch stories. Here are our picks for the best apps to make sure you’re the first to know.

Flipboard: Described as a “social news magazine,” the app creates a customized digital magazine with news, from outlets such as The New York Times, Fast Company and Vanity Fair, on topics you choose to follow. You can also search for news and save stories in your magazine – and create different magazines for different topics and manage them from your dashboard. “The Daily Edition” delivers the day’s top news selected by Flipboard’s editorial staff, and local editions are available in 24 countries. With its aesthetically-pleasing design and curated touch, Flipboard makes finding and reading stories something you look forward to! Free on iOS and Android.

Overcast: Turn your mobile device into a radio that gets you up to speed on local, national and international news through your favorite podcasts. Download podcasts ahead of time to listen to offline during your commute so you’re updated by the time you dive in to work. The app offers recommendations for new news, and notifies you when new episodes for shows you subscribe to are available. Free on iOS; “Unlock Everything” for $4.99.

PR Newswire: The app version of this top PR news wire service delivers the most recent press releases, multimedia and earnings reports to your device. You can set up alerts for organizations and topics, and quickly know news about your company or brand’s competitors. Free on iOS.

Twitterific: Think of this as your ultra-customized Twitter feed. It allows you to view mentions and direct messages on your timeline, customize themes, tweet, switch between accounts easily, and share images and animated GIFs with rich media support. This cuts the amount of time you need to spend on Twitter but still lets you capture and share info effectively. Free on iOS.

Paper: This app offered by Facebook integrates with your news feed to highlight top stories from friends and topics of interest in a clean, appealing layout. Only the most important text and photos are pulled, allowing you to view your feed distraction-free. You can also share content directly from the app. It’s a great way to know what’s buzzing among your social circles. Free on iOS.

Nuzzel: If you work in PR, it’s likely you have smart friends who care about similar topics. This app alerts you to the top stories from key outlets such as CNN, NBC, Fox, The New York Times and BuzzFeed that others are sharing on Facebook and Twitter. When you find interesting articles, you can easily share via Twitter, Facebook, email or text directly through the app. Free on iOS and Android.

Hiring A PR Agency? 5 Dos And Don'ts

If your company or brand is ready to create a Request for Proposal to bring on a PR agency, it’s an exciting time. It means the business is growing, or is on the cusp of a new direction. While some relish the prospect of an agency search, it’s always time-consuming and can have pitfalls. Make the experience a bit more smooth by considering our Dos and Don’ts.

Do consider the agency’s experience. Make sure the PR firm you’re considering has significant experience with businesses similar to yours and is familiar with your industry. If you’re a tech startup that develops B2B technology, for example, a PR agency specializing in fashion PR that happens to have a wearable tech client probably won’t be a fit. However…

Don’t pick a PR firm simply because they’ve worked with your biggest competitor. Too often, the first things companies do when beginning their search is to find the firm that worked with their arch rival or a company they aspire to be like. It’s a tempting line of thought (they worked magic for them, why not for me, too?) but this can be a double-edged sword. Why did the relationship end, for example? Was success due to the agency, or because the company was already a household name? tactics were used? Your competitor could have a vastly different internal structure, philosophy, or approach, so a duplicate PR strategy probably won’t work.

Do make a shortlist and have face-to-face team meetings. Your relationship with a PR team should be a partnership, and partnerships depend on human interaction. Chemistry does matter. Some of our clients like to say they consider us an extension of their own team, and that’s a valuable asset. Take the time to narrow the field, then meet face to face with no more than five agencies.

Do provide access to decision-makers during the search. Allow PR agencies to speak with key decision-makers and top-level staff at your company. This is time-consuming, yes, but it will help you in the long run because it levels the playing field but also offers quality insights and access to agencies on your short list. Also, it’s surprising how often agencies will present their best stuff, only to find out later that the top guy was expecting something different.

Don’t make the RFP too complicated. RFPs are notorious for being long, difficult, and hard to navigate. We’ve seen RFPs that go on for pages and pages, requiring PR firms to include vast amounts of information that, frankly, doesn’t offer insight into the firm’s quality of work. Brevity and simplicity can be deceptively difficult, but a tighter and more focused RFP will elicit better responses. More on the RFP below!

Interested in tips on how to put together a more effective RFP? Download our tipsheet, 6 Steps To A Better RFP Process.

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Flawless PR Execution: How To Avoid 8 Media Relations Mistakes

Most successful PR campaigns have one thing in common – a sound strategy. That’s where the best communicators commit substantial time and energy in advance of a launch.

Yet PR programs most often falter in the execution. This is where a PR or media relations campaign is most likely to be derailed, or simply to miss important opportunities.  Here are some of the most avoidable PR and media relations mistakes.

No communication between PR, sales and marketing.  Nobody wants publicity to hit before the hot new product is available or to place a feature story with outdated information. Yet it happens. To avoid mishaps that waste or undermine great coverage, make sure that the media relations plan is mapped in concert with sales and marketing, and that all parties coordinate regularly after the strategy and messaging are finalized.  Distribution or price changes, local-market retail events—all should be communicated to the PR team. In the same way, sales needed to be informed of high-profile earned media coverage so they can take advantage of them with customers or retailers.

Complacency after the “big hit.  Nailed a New York Times feature?  Funding announcement in TechCrunch?  Now the work begins.  Other media outlets who aren’t direct competitors will probably want to cover the story.  An early print media piece in an influential publication can be the beginning of a great run.  Remember, broadcast news and morning shows often get their guest ideas from print news, so it’s a mistake to think the job is done after a single triumphant story or segment.

A poor PR spokesperson.  A boring or unprepared brand spokesperson can stick a pin in a media interview faster than a deleted email pitch (see below).  Before any media contact, a spokesperson should be briefed on the opportunity and ready to tell the story in way that’s both natural and engaging. Don’t forget the pre-interview—typically conducted by a producer or PA to prep a broadcast segment. That’s an audition for the real thing, so don’t take it for granted.

Bad timing.  Meaning, late. This is the most mundane and probably the most common error in media pitching.  Timing is everything to a journalist, and the art of PR and media relations is in offering the story with enough lead time to take advantage of that seasonal news hook or to allow the chance to flesh out a piece with research and background interviews.  It’s a shame and a waste of talent to see a Labor Day story fall short because it’s late August already or to have your best sound bit go unused because someone waited to return a call.

Missing breaking news. This one’s an opportunity cost.  Piggybacking on a news story, or “newsjacking,” is made easier if you have a qualified expert – and if you act quickly.  You can bet that when news of the Ashley Madison hack hit, data security companies were offered for comment on the same day.  He who hesitates is the publicity loser.

Ignoring the media “exclusive.  An “exclusive” means offering a key journalist first-use of a news item or interview.  It’s associated with major stories, but it applies equally to trade, B2B, and technology press.  The exclusive works well because the client often gets a larger story and the journalist gets it first.  Then a skilled PR and media relations pro will offer the news more broadly to maximize its reach.  Everybody wins.

Lazy pitching.   Sometimes the difference between an okay pitch and a great one comes down to research.  Diving into the category, the environment, the best customers, and the client’s own backstory is important.  With one of our startup clients, a colorful detail about an offer to sell his company to a competitor helped convince a fence-sitting reporter at the Wall Street Journal to dover his story.  It wouldn’t have come to light without a thorough debrief and some clever packaging.

Another lazy strategy is asking for coverage because “it would mean so much to the company.”  That’s unprofessional, and it’s a turnoff for any self-respecting journalist because if fails the most basic litmus test:  why should my readers/viewers care about this story?

Sloppy emails.  Spammy email practices are the top complaint of journalists flooded with bad PR apitches.  As the AOR (Agency of Record) for a group of technology content sites, we wade through hundreds of email pitches from PR people —a tedious but educational task.  Avoidable mistakes include the classic “Dear [XXX]”, (careless, and a red flag for any reporter who wants a personalized pitch); wrong names; multiple emails and wildly irrelevant pitches.  Time spent carefully vetting and prioritizing a list for a major story makes all the difference.

A version of this post originally ran on July 28, 2015 on MENGBlend.

Staying Cool Under PR Pressure

When you work for a PR agency in New York, things can heat up even when it’s not the thick of summer. Whether you’re at an agency, in-house, or working with a PR firm, the business tends to put the pressure on.

How to beat the heat: Tips for staying cool when the pressure is high. 
So what are the keys to keeping one’s cool under any circumstances?

Prioritize, and address the most urgent issue first. This is a tip from an air traffic controller. It’s easy to get flustered when a number of pressing matters are vying for your attention. Perhaps that reporter you spoke to yesterday has three follow up questions and her deadline is in one hour. Meanwhile one of your team members has questions about an important document you’re working on that needs to be sent out ASAP. What’s more, the industry event you’ve been charged with leading is right around the corner, with dozens of details yet to be worked out. Learn how to distinguish the urgent from the important, prioritize, and bring your focus to each one in turn.

Stage a mental dress rehearsal. When facing a high-pressure presentation or perhaps a sensitive media interview, take a cue from a cancer surgeon in Dallas, who mentally runs through all the details of a procedure the night before, playing it “like a movie in my head.” That same strategy worked for swimmer Michael Phelps, who learned to “play the tape,” as his coach told him, internally visualizing the steps of a successful race day. This included imagining how he would respond to problems such as gear malfunction. So one day, when his goggles filled with water during an actual Olympic race, he was prepared. Phelps famously closed his eyes, counted the strokes he estimated it would take him to complete the race, and swam blind (setting a world record!) Vividly envisioning the scenario as you want it to play out is a powerful tool to keeping one’s cool and focus under pressure.

Focus on “wins” to avoid getting buried. “Staying positive” can sound trite, but it’s actually important to keep one’s outlook bright when facing pressure from all sides. Did you land an epic media placement using your cunning media savvy? Did you turn a potentially negative PR situation into something that made your brand look good instead? In the face of mounting pressure, savor the small (or big) wins that made you proud, and use them as fuel to get to the finish line in the new tasks you’re facing.

Use your support system. With some smart thinking and a little luck, you’ve made the right choices and have surrounded yourself with a strong team. When the pressure is on, don’t be afraid to ask for help or seek clarification. A solid communications team knows the key to success is to help one another out when in need.