REI Cancels Black Friday. Great PR Follows.

How many retailers could tell its customers to take a hike – literally – and earn glowing PR? Of course, that’s exactly what happened when REI announced it would close on Black Friday while urging employees and customers to get out and enjoy the outdoors instead of shopping.

It was a trailblazing PR move that won our attention at first because it seems like a bold, even risky, step. REI acknowledges that the day after Thanksgiving is a top 10 sales day and it will almost certainly lose money by closing all stores and distribution centers and treating the day as a paid holiday for staff.

Another reason the decision was a PR winner is because it’s so perfectly on-brand for the Seattle-based retailer, which was founded by a group of mountaineers and espouses passion for outdoor recreation, environmental stewardship, and volunteerism.

But it wasn’t just the intrepid idea that catapulted REI to the top of our newsfeeds. Its execution was also skillful. Instead of simply announcing its policy, REI tied its decision to a call-for-action, well-hashtagged as #OptOutdoors – a nice play on words and an expression of corporate values that meshes beautifully with those of its core customers.
Of course, the great coverage and liberal social sharing also stem from a backlash against “Black Friday creep” – the tendency of retailers to hold doorbuster-type sales earlier and earlier on Friday, even cutting into Thanksgiving day itself. Although other retailers like Nordstrom and Costco have won PR points by being vocal about closing on Thanksgiving, REI is a pioneer when it comes to Black Friday, which is like a holy day in retail.

But REI also has an advantage over many traditional retail companies, and it was smart to leverage that difference. It’s about the company’s structure. As the large consumer retailer cooperative in the country, REI is free of the margin pressures and reporting requirements of public companies. It’s also a major e-tailer, so naturally there’s nothing to prevent fans from taking advantage of any great holiday deals on offer from the comfort of their laptop (or from under a tent on a ruggedized smartphone.)

It’s free to depart from convention, take the trail less traveled, and benefit from the result — a reputation boost as big as the great outdoors.

5 Fun Twitter Campaigns That Drive PR

Twitter is many a PR pro‘s best friend, in part for its lightning speed in breaking news and its way of facilitating quick, off-the-cuff conversations with journalists and other influencers. But the longstanding social media platform — Twitter will celebrate its 10th birthday in March! — is also a great way to drive PR buzz for companies and brands.

Here are some of our favorite Twitter campaigns that figured out how to drive great earned media and social sharing.

Ben and Jerry’s Fair Tweets campaign. This campaign wins for its cleverness. By now everyone knows 140 characters is the Twitter limit, so the ice cream makers came up with the premise that “every day, millions of Twitter characters go unused” and created a way for people to “donate” their remaining characters to Ben and Jerry’s, who would use them to tweet messages about fair trade. All in time for October, which was Fair Trade Month.  What also works about this campaign: it’s an extension of Ben & Jerry’s longstanding commitment to social causes, while the cleverness saves it from being sanctimonious.

LG’s #bestshotever photo contest. The electronics giant found a natural way to promote its newest smartphone by hosting a photo contest on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag, #bestshotever. We were surprised more smartphone makers hadn’t already used this strategy to engage consumers. As brands know, the more visually stimulating their social campaigns are, the better.

The White House’s #getcovered campaign. This one’s a bit older, but worth mentioning. The White House allowed users to tweet their personal stories about what getting health insurance meant to them following the start of Obamacare. It used the hashtag #getcovered, and added a visual element via a Storify slideshow. The campaign continues in full swing today, with the administration using it to announce important dates, like open enrollment starting next week.

Domino’s in the UK. Across the pond, Domino’s ran a clever Twitter campaign that challenged its customers to include the hashtag #letsdolunch to reduce the price of a pizza. For every tweet, the company dropped the price of its most popular pie by £0.01. In the end, the price went from £15.99 to £7.74 and generated a bit of buzz in the process. Domino’s scored by targeting a specific time slot to run its campaign, and by allowing consumers to do the promoting for them by providing the incentive.

PayPal’s anti-holiday campaign. Also from the archives, PayPal capitalized on the well-known fact that Valentine’s Day isn’t everyone’s favorite by sharing a fan’s tweet: “Who needs a boyfriend when you have a PayPal account?” The tweet prompted such widespread response that PayPal used the hashtag #treatyourself to continue driving the conversation, and even surprised some users with gifts that answered their tweets. The takeaway here: find non-obvious, creative ways to use holidays.

B2B PR: It Doesn’t Mean "Boring To Boring"

For top PR agencies tackling B2B work, this quote from strategist Valeria Maltoni seems apt: “Your writing doesn’t have to be boring just because it’s for other businesses. Businesses have people who read stuff.”

And, it’s true, B2B doesn’t mean boring to boring! Here are some ways we enliven our B2B brand work.

Look for pop culture tie-ins. Business media often blur the lines between hard and soft business news and become interested in a story with sex appeal as well as stats. To that end, we have linked the data from a navigational app to the top spots to drink beer on St. Patrick’s Day for a tech feature and used a credit union’s expertise to warn businesses about “fiscal frightmares” near Halloween. This “added value” can sometimes be the difference between your business or trade pitch and 50 others.

Add speaker appeal.  You’ve secured a keynote for your CEO, and he’s just shown you 50 slides that will put anyone to sleep. There are so many ways to fix “death by Powerpoint” and still convey the necessary substance.Work with your speaker to  “downsize” copy. Get rid of half the text. Work to make the slides tell a story and stop any speaker from reading verbatim. Better still, add arresting images, music and video to keep the audience engaged. Here are some good tips.

Perk up your bylines. When appropriate, of course. Not every outlet is looking for you to turn trade trends into Shakespeare. However, there’s always room to make interesting analogies, add color to quotes and find fresh turns of phrase. Why call a new beer successful when you can call it “money in a mug?”

Seek creative “out-of-the-lane” opportunities. Yes, we’re all being told to “stay in our lane” as a way to maintain focus on our own expertise. But sometimes, a CEO has an unusual hobby or an executive had a crazy job in the past (we’re currently working with an exec who’s a former Navy cryptographer.) Smart B2B PR people can transform those experiences into thought leadership opportunities, from speaking opps to bylines to blog posts and videos.

Incorporate outsiders. Add some sparkle to your next panel discussion, blog post or byline by inviting a compelling “special guest” to participate. If the topic of your panel discussion is art and e-commerce, invite an artist. When convening experts to discuss a medical device, don’t overload the discussion with doctors; invite real-life users with emotional human-interest stories. Make it your “business” to be creative with B2B PR.

Amazon And The New York Times: Corporate PR Gets Tough

The PR agency world has been buzzing over Amazon’s extraordinary public response to the August New York Times feature about its “bruising” workplace. For those who’ve been under a rock, the piece depicted Amazon as a “survivor”-like environment where utter dedication to company goals is demanded and constant stress is the norm. A refutation of the story, posted this week on Medium by Amazon’s Jay Carney, instantly drew notice, as did a quick response to Carney’s post from Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet.

PR and media pros have various opinions about the strategy, but Carney’s rebuttal is notable in a few ways. First, it was posted on Medium rather than simply released to the press. Some speculate that Carney used the platform for its power to generate search visibility among prospective Amazon recruits, since the post now appears in search results with the original NYT article. Another advantage of Medium as a platform was that Carney apparently requested – and was granted – the ability to shut off comments. Judging from the more than 5000 comments posted after the Times piece, many of them critical of Amazon, I’d say that was an advantage.

Amazon was late in responding, but shrewd in using Medium

But what’s most unusual that Carney’s post came more than two months after the initial story. This bumps against conventional PR wisdom that a delayed or extravagant response to a negative story will only serve to draw fresh attention to it when it might otherwise die down. After all, a “leaked” internal memo by Jeff Bezos within days of the story’s publication served as Amazon’s unofficial but stirring response. In his post, Carney claims Amazon contacted the Times about the story’s misrepresentations several weeks ago and asked for corrections, then decided to make the case on Medium when the paper refused.

Carney’s post also gets personal and even combative, claiming NYT reporter Jodi Kantor misled the company about the nature of the story to gain access. More eye-opening is that it impugns the reputation of an ex-employee of Amazon who is heavily quoted in the story by accusing him of serious misconduct. Carney maintains the Times relied on shaky sources, neglected to check facts, and used anecdotes very selectively to paint a false picture.

The post drew an immediate defense from Baquet, also published on Medium, and Carney in turn posted a response to the response. At that point, it seemed to have devolved into a public pissing match.

So, who won? Clearly, Medium, which some are calling “the PR Newswire of the social media age.”  PR and media professionals differ over whether the exchange helped either Amazon or the Times.

Unlike many of my peers, I think it was smart for Amazon to leverage Jay Carney’s notoriety and Medium’s status among journalists and influencers to make its case. It was probably worth the risk of making the original story top-of-mind again, but not because Carney’s post changed many opinions. In my view, Amazon haters will continue to believe the worst about the company. Critics of the Times, by the same token, will rail against the paper. Most Amazon Prime members will shrug, and potential Amazon employees will use their own sources to decide whether it’s right for them.

But the Amazon challenge to the world’s most influential news outlet was a warning shot to media who choose to take on Amazon – and very possibly, other big brands with deep pockets and powerful advocates.

In the final analysis, the spat is significant because it signals the elevation of a new combativeness in corporate PR. Corporate communications just got a little nastier, and maybe journalism got a little tougher. Today, smart corporate PR execs and their agencies will put the gloves on to use their most influential allies and the power of social media and brand journalism to challenge an inaccurate story – or even one that is merely unflattering. They’re ready to match the most prestigious media outlet fact for fact, quote for quote, and post for post. As the environment continues to shift, and more journalists and political operatives migrate to the corporate side, there will be more and uglier bruises on both sides.

What PR Can Learn From The New York Mets

What can a top NY PR firm learn from the hometown team that’s currently on top of the world, the New York Mets? Plenty.

All PR professionals can take a lesson from the team’s recipe for success — a blend of long-term strategy and a few quick fixes that helped propel the team to the World Series for the first time in 29 years.

Grab your peanuts and Cracker Jack and read on for a few kernels of wisdom that apply to PR, communications, or just about any talent-based business.

Don’t wait for a “trade deadline” to make smart personnel swaps. When the Mets traded ace pitcher R.A. Dickey for young phenom Noah Syndergaard and solid catcher with home run power Travis d’Arnaud, there was skepticism about the new players. But the trade has worked brilliantly, proving the team’s eye for talent. On your PR team, if a dynamic isn’t working, switch things up. Don’t wait for a key account lead to complain or a small misunderstanding to escalate.

You needn’t always swing for the fences. Often a series of small, smart tweaks can add up to a successful media placement or buy-in of an important PR strategy. If you watched Daniel Murphy before his incredible record-breaking homer streak, you saw this strategy in action. In the first game against the Dodgers, Murphy  proved masterful at leveraging other opportunities – namely stealing bases – that helped the Mets secure the crucial win.

Hire the best pitchers! Of course, in the MLB, this means young arms with an arsenal of fastballs, cutters and nasty sliders – that’s how the Mets beat LA and Chicago. PR “pitchers” also need an arsenal of weapons to get the job done, whether it’s shaping complex data or digging deeper for an executive profile. Your team needs a variety of styles to get the job done and the smarts to know when to ditch a “quick pitch” for a windup.

Get the “scouting report” on the opposing players. Due diligence calls for knowlege of a rival’s weaknesses. The Mets knew Chicago lacked depth of pitching talent, and they used that to their advantage. Be as smart as you can about client or new business competition when selling a journalist on a product launch or pitching for the big new client win.

Have a strong bullpen and overall bench. To emulate the winning Mets team, fill your line-up with pinch hitters, utility players and your “regulars.” But don’t be afraid to test them in new positions. Winning closer Jeurys Familia was never intended for that spot. He was a 7th or 8th inning pitcher who proved his mettle when asked and helped take the team to victory. And, in baseball as in life, these top performers will be challenged to repeat the same great performance again and again.
So, savor your victories, and stick to your long-range plan in the face of setbacks.

How PR Campaigns Are Like Marathon Training

It’s marathon season here in the Northeast, and a New York PR agency can’t help but think about how practicing media and public relations can be like training for a marathon. As a multiple marathon finisher and a lifelong runner, I’ve seen firsthand how simple steps pay off on race day, while also translating into vivid lessons in other areas of life.
Here are some essential things to keep in mind for success in both PR campaigns and marathon training.

Take the long view. Any runner attempting to finish 26.2 miles needs to keep the long view in mind. So it is with PR. For sure, a PR program will have its share of quick wins, but more often than not it’s a long term effort building brand awareness, share of voice, and search engine optimization via content marketing — whether the focus is B2B or B2C, travel, finance or technology PR. In media relations, developing relationships with journalists is key to successful placements, but it takes time.

Follow a robust, healthy diet. Any athlete in training will tell you how much of a difference a diet packed with nutrients and healthy proteins makes. Likewise, good PR practitioners need a robust diet of knowledge and wisdom, fed through different channels and social media platforms. The way businesses and consumers are absorbing news couldn’t be more dynamic today, and PR pros should understand and consume both high brow” and “low brow” types, the video and the written article or blog post, the long form as well as the listicle. For more on what outlets every PR pro should read regularly, check out our previous post on the subject.

Stay strong. The well-rounded marathoner knows running isn’t the only part of physical training. Regular core strength and upper body workouts are key to improving running posture, balance, and efficiency. (Just ask Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer, who buffed up for her role in The Hunger Games by running the London marathon, and is running this November’s New York City marathon). In public relations, adding skills and knowledge from other industries serve to strengthen the work you do in PR. For example, companies investing in PR are often in growth mode, which means the company is going through significant changes. A strong understanding of business development, marketing, and even organizational development can strengthen one’s value to clients.

The Business Case For Corporate Reputation PR

PR  and corporate communications professionals often advocate for proactive corporate reputation management. We talk up the benefits of having a good reputation, but can you put a value on it?

A bad reputation can be ruinous, of course.  Just look at the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal.  Its shares tumbled and its chief executive resigned after the corporation’s cheating came to light. Between penalties, repairs, litigation, and lost sales, it could take VW years to steer its business into the right lane.

Bad news makes good headlines, and the punishing cost of a public mistake is one reason why companies view a strong reputation as money in the “trust” bank.  They know that ongoing management of the corporate or brand image can protect it in the event of a crisis, so they invest in risk management. They make sure that preparations are made for any and every harmful scenario, and they wisely review the crisis plan regularly.

But the best reason to invest in proactive reputation management shouldn’t be the fear of a corporate scandal.

Reputation is more than a defensive tool. A strong reputation is a significant corporate asset, not just a good thing to have in a crisis. In fact, it turns out there is actually a quantifiable reward or reputation dividend for companies who invest in their own reputation management.

We know that “low-trust” companies experience a negativity bias, meaning that a negative story or message will have a greater impact than a positive one—roughly four times more in one study.  But the flip side also applies. “High-trust” companies are affected by a negative message only half as severely as they are by a positive one.

Some studies have actually tried to quantify the value of a good reputation. According to Reputation Dividend, the corporate reputations of S&P 500 companies make up close to $3.7 trillion in value, or 21 percent of total market capitalization.  The analysis suggests that a 5% improvement in the strength of an S&P 500 company’s reputation would yield a market capitalization growth of 1.5%. That translates to a value of roughly $550 million for an average company on the S&P list.

This chart from Andrea Bonime-Blanc summarizes the positive case for a well-managed corporate reputation, as distinct from the negative one.

The reputation “bonus” is about more than just the strength of a corporate reputation.  Today it involves the promotion of particular attributes informed by a company, its category, competitive set, economic environment, and culture.  Reputation management is moving from nurturing the perception of general attributes like product quality and customer service to more pinpointed ones  like commitment to innovation, talent development, work ethic, or creativity.

It’s clear that the right reputation is more than a defensive tool.  There’s a strong business case to be made that the intangible asset of a corporate reputation translates into outcomes and earnings that are very tangible indeed.

This post was written and originally published for MENGonline.

PR "Horror Stories" And Lessons Learned

It’s nearly Halloween, which means it’s time for our annual look at a top New York PR agency’s tales of terror and mysterious mishaps, with a retro nod to everyone’s favorite girl sleuth, Nancy Drew. Anyone who works in public relations will tell you that things can go dramatically and frightfully wrong, despite meticulous planning.

PR pros will remember when Michael Bay, the action film director, walked off the stage at CES over a teleprompter snafu at the start of a glitzy TV launch event. The mega-star meltdown seemed like a disaster, although the extra coverage could have been a bonus for the brand.

Read on for some nightmarish war stories that may make your head spin but in some cases actually offer a positive takeaway.

The riddle of the disappearing ink. A former colleague hand-addressed invitations to a press event in fancy gold ink on black envelopes. By the time they had been mailed, the ink rubbed off of every single invitation! Thankfully, she had included company return addresses so she was able to re-address and distribute, but with only three days to spare. Maybe the lesson is to test out a new concept and build in extra time, just in case.

The “snickering” spokesperson. He didn’t walk off the set like Michael Bay, but maybe he should have. A colleague handled PR for a major candy brand that retained a teenage heartthrob to promote its involvement in youth sports. Imagine her horror when, in a taped appearance on an MTV game show, the pop idol made a veiled reference to his, um, personal anatomy. The quick-thinking PR pro knew the client would be horrified at the innuendo, so she begged the producer to cut it. The network eventually agreed to heighten the audience laughter to muffle it and quickly cut to applause. The segment was strategically placed at the end of a very long sizzle video, and the PR pro never heard a word about it from the client. She’s still wondering if they noticed.

The case of the callous cancellation. After having been (unjustly) fired by a Midwest client in a small town, the PR team at a top ten agency was granted an audience with the CEO for a last-ditch attempt to salvage the business. The intrepid team got as far as Detroit, where they boarded a connecting flight, only to be grounded by a snowstorm. After hours on an immobile plane, they arranged to drive the five-hour trip overnight. Showerless and sleep-deprived, they arrived just in time for the morning meeting, only to be told that it was canceled and the agency’s contract terminated. There’s no lesson here, just the bitter life of the PR agency warrior.

The haunted press briefing. In the midst of our media roundtable to share a client’s new product strategy, a mysterious groaning could be heard somewhere above the private restaurant room that had been prepared for the occasion. As the CEO began his powerpoint overview, the groaning turned to rumbling and plaster began to fall from the ceiling! The building was hastily evacuated. It turned out to be a crumbling ceiling and faulty roof made weaker by recent rains. Media guests laughed it off, and fortunately, no one was hurt. It was forever after known as the press event that brought the house down.

The mystery of the medical authority.  A dentist client claimed to have developed a diagnostic tool for detecting oral cancers. The doctor was a highly credentialed professional and spoke in articulate detail about the device and its benefits. Based on this knowledge, we reached out to health and medical media, who “bit” on the story. But, alas when it came time to produce those patients he mentioned…the dentist clammed up, and we were forced to cancel and apologize to press. The obvious lesson here? Demand as much data and supportive materials as you can, don’t let a good “salesman” sell you, even if he’s a client.

Brands With Blogs That PR Loves

When building a comprehensive public relations campaign, a smart blog is still a relevant and beneficial tool. Blogging came into its own more than a decade ago, but that doesn’t mean blogs are old news. In fact, they’re critical in setting the tone and voice of a company or brand, providing ways to inform, educate, delight, and engage. A great company blog is a key to effective brand PR as well as a tool for being discovered and building new leads.

In today’s fully evolved digital media universe, blogs need to be relevant, high quality, and useful — and it can’t hurt to be fun. Here are our picks for the best company blogs that strengthen PR programs.

Zuora. We include this to show that B2B tech businesses can have blogs that shine as brightly as the sexiest consumer brands. This well-funded software company serves companies with subscription-based business models. Its blog features company announcements as well as posts filled with tips and insights relevant to its clientele, such as a post titled “5 reasons why millennials are adopting subscriptions.” But its consistent, creative visual layout makes this company blog stand out: each post gets a custom photo adhering to an overall look. The effect adds polish and style.

Williams Sonoma. Williams Sonoma Taste is a destination blog for serious foodies, another example of a brand serving up stellar content  for the customer it wants to reach, engage, and keep for life. Content is clean and highly visual, and posts are organized neatly into helpful categories, making it easy to navigate and find the type of content you’re looking for, in a pinch.

HubSpot. The Cambridge-based company is yet another B2B force and a strong example for content marketers. Known for its inbound marketing services, Hubspot is a great resource for marketers, copywriters, PRs, and others. The frequency, clarity, and quality of HubSpot blog content — full of useful tips like this post on how to write great titles (the bane of many a writer’s existence) — helps it stand out as an authoritative voice in its industry.

Warby Parker. The darling of online startups, Warby Parker uses its company blog as an extension of the quirky brand voice it’s cultivated in just five short but highly successful years. Once again, posts are clean, visual, and well organized. Most importantly, the copy reflects the slightly off-center, fun and friendly voice fans have grown to love, even when offering a free download for its New York City themed desktop wallpaper: “Here it is for download. May it brighten your day as much as a pup finding a slice on the ground.”

Etsy. The Etsy blog is an amalgam of all things creative. It regularly features top-selling stores, providing readers with insights for their own Etsy shops, and plenty of ideas for seasonal craft projects. Adding commentary on news in the creative category — such as this post on Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book on “creative living” —  helps keep the blog relevant and shows the brand is in-the-know.

Dig deeper: For tips on avoiding blunders in your own company blog, download our tipsheet.

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