When Brands Get Political: Is It Good PR?

PR.TweetA couple of weeks ago, I was called by two journalists wanting public relations insights on companies hit with blowback for comments about our new president. Should brands get political, they wanted to know? I shared my perspective that brands shouldn’t always shy away from controversy, summarizing with, “You can’t put your head in a hole, shrink back, and avoid the entire dialogue.”

The quote seems almost quaint after this weekend’s events. Social and media channels were blazing following the president’s executive order restricting travel to the U.S. from seven primarily Muslim countries. Even for those favoring a tighter refugee policy, the execution of the ban, which stranded travelers and caused confusion at airports and among government agencies, left a lot to be desired. But for the public relations community, the instant reaction of many large companies also signaled a change in our little world. For major brands, it’s getting harder sit on the sidelines.

Pressure to speak out, but risk either way

On Saturday, Uber stepped over a picket line when it failed to honor a New York City taxi strike in solidarity with those affected by the travel ban. #DeleteUber began trending almost instantly. Rival Lyft was quick to ride into the breach by pledging a $1 million donation to the ACLU, which dispatched lawyers to assist those stranded in airports and elsewhere. Then, Airbnb’s Brian Chesky announced his company would offer lodging to refugees stranded by the ban.

As outrage grew, more tech companies spoke out against Trump’s action, and Google’s Sergey Brin even showed up at a protest at San Francisco airport. Brin, who emigrated from the Soviet Union at the age of six, emphasized that his motive was personal, but there wasn’t much doubt where Google stands on the order. CEO Sundar Pichai announced a $4 million “crisis fund” and criticized the ban in an internal email, calling it “painful to see the personal cost of this executive order on our colleagues.”

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings capped the outcry by calling the ban “un-American” and Slack cofounder Stewart Butterfield tweeted that “every action seems gratuitously evil.” In one of the more dramatic commitments, Starbucks’ Howard Schultz — never one to shrink from a principled position — vowed to hire 10,000 refugees in 75 countries over the next five years. Schultz’s announcement, naturally, triggered a #boycottStarbucks hashtag that trended throughout the day Monday.

All this in the first 48 hours after the executive order. Certainly, large technology companies are invested in a progressive immigration policy and it’s in their interest to make those views known and to reassure their workforce. Studies show that CEO activism is safest – and probably most effective – when it involves issues with direct relevance to their business. But the new administration is setting up daily challenges for all kinds of companies and their leadership, as well as the communications teams who advise them. As the Trump administration moves forward, it will be critical for major brands to carve out their own positions on a range of hot-button topics.

A cost for remaining silent

There are risks in taking a stand on any controversial matter, particularly in our divisive political environment. You’ll never please everyone, and dealing with the inevitable customer response is a distraction from the day-to-day business at hand. An errant quote or hasty decision can precipitate a social boycott or worse. And as we’ve seen, a nasty tweet from Mr. Trump can cause a public company’s stock to drop.

But there’s also a cost in remaining silent. It’s more subtle, but it’s there, and it’s looming larger these days. Especially for our biggest and most socially visible corporations – from global technology companies to major consumer brands – the expectations are growing. Look at the pressure on Sheryl Sandberg, who until very recently had not spoken publicly about Trump’s policies or rhetoric. Expectations of business leaders, particularly those who’ve articulated social values, are very high. They’re driven even higher by those who set an example, like the CEOs who spoke out over the weekend on the immigration EO, or the many who publicly condemned North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” last year. Both situations evoked a response that merged business concerns and social values, and both grabbed public attention for the companies involved.

Millennials expect more

Another reason for the growing pressure on big brands to speak out is that most crave the approval of millennials, the customers of today and the future. This rising generation wants to know where the brands they support stand on key issues, and they’re quick to use the power of their pocketbook to support, or punish, where they see fit.

So, what’s a brand to do? The task for most organizations is to understand the attitudes and values of their own employees, customers, and other stakeholders on high-priority social and political matters. Their engagement with their best customers and advocates should transcend traditional marketing and PR research to work at a gut level. Then they must articulate their own corporate values relevant to burning issues and communicate them consistently and thoughtfully.

Above all, authenticity matters. For any brand that jumps on a breaking story for some quick publicity without a true commitment to the issue, or absent preparation for all types of customer reaction, there will be a steep downside.

It’s not easy. But something tells me the tough and divisive issues aren’t going away any time soon. As one protestor’s sign read, “We’ll be here tomorrow.”

Teams are choosing sides; companies and their brands should be ready.

PR Pitches Journalists Will Love

Recently an editor acquaintance of mine told a public relations seminar that she didn’t care how PR pros pitched her as long as they didn’t waste her time. OK, seems simple enough. Yet getting your approach just right can still be daunting, so we thought it a good time to revisit the rules for successful story pitching.

Keep your pitch under 200 words. Some at our agency would make the case for fewer, but there are instances where more is actually more, like a complicated new technology or a financing announcement with many players. However, the prevailing rule in our 140-character world is the shorter, the better.

Be prepared. Those of us who opt for minimal subject lines and two-sentence email pitches need to be prepared to answer all logical questions, arrange interviews, supply statistics or other data, and essentially close the sale. There’s nothing worse than having a journalist bite on a pitch for a time-sensitive story and have to spend a week digging up research or wrangling a client for an interview. Be ready to go.

Get strategic with your subject line. The same editor told me the simplest subject line is the best. If you know the editor well, go with “Hi Jane, it’s me.” If not, find a compelling few words that get the message across without being too clever. We occasionally look at email studies that analyzed thousands of pitches and provided recommendations on top-performing words (among them, “ideal” and “know”) and ones to avoid (“interactive” “data” some of  the lowest performers.) One of our most successful campaigns on behalf of a connected home air quality monitor included media outreach with this subject line: “‘Sick house’ facts you need to know.” Lesson learned.

Can your story be tied to a trend? If this sounds tried and true, it is. The best PR pros are voracious media consumers and this gives them insights into what’s current in pop culture, politics, tech breakthroughs and world events. The best pitches are often those that point out a connection to a hot trend. The week after the presidential inauguration, if you were fortunate enough to represent an expert on crowd science, for example, you likely hit the newsjacking jackpot.

We’ve got the beat. Demonstrating knowledge of journalist beats is one of the most direct routes to interest in a story idea. And it pays to go the extra mile to discern the subtleties that separate the beats. Dig deeper than a Cision listing to determine whether that “technology” reporter covers software or hardware, or whether a regional publication includes your client’s hometown or if that consumer reporter ever covers new products or only trends. This extra step can be the difference between a productive relationship and a snarky email schooling you on your media misstep.

Be fearless in your follow-up. If a reporter has opened the door to the possibility of a story but doesn’t commit right away, don’t give up. We don’t condone mindless pestering. We do advocate building on what has already been pitched to flesh out an angle even further. This approach can heighten the urgency of your story and help a fence-sitting journalist decide to cover. Upon launching a new wearable safety device, we received lukewarm interest from a writer who left it to us to “dazzle” him in some way. Within days, a story appeared covering the FBI’s search for tech talent to develop software that was basically identical to our client’s product. This was the newsworthy nudge the writer needed to craft this story.

How To Make PR Surveys Work Harder

In running high-profile consumer and B2B public relations campaigns over the years, we’ve learned some important tricks for making surveys work harder. As any good PR person knows, a well-designed survey can help increase earned media exposure and sharing of branded content. But a survey is an investment, and outcomes can be unpredictable. Here are some tips you may want to incorporate when drafting your next survey.

Pick a provocative topic. Let your own finely tuned media consumption habits guide you towards what a timely and relevant topic might be. Do research to determine that other recent surveys haven’t already covered the same ground. Then, build questions around it that would make good fodder for reporters. In our experience, even broad topics that have already been surveyed can work if there’s a fresh twist or a focus on a narrow aspect of the them. Even if the topic is large, packaging the results in an arresting way can draw attention. For example, surveys about our about the coming election might have seemed redundant during our poll-heavy and lengthy campaign season, but the “top American fears” hook for one annual study was not only well designed, but well packaged and the result was truly newsworthy content.

Keep the results you’re looking for in mind. Don’t mix in unnecessary questions or choices that could end up clouding your data. Sometimes it’s helpful to write a press release lead first, to see in black and white what an ideal headline might be. Before you even develop your questions, think about what the desired outcome might be based on your client’s expertise and goals. Working with The NHP Foundation, we hypothesized that millennials are putting off home buying due to crushing school debt and other factors. Trends and public-domain data seemed to back our theory, so we developed relevant questions, and the media found our results compelling.

Be thoughtful in constructing questions.  Write questions clearly and consistently, so all respondents will interpret them the same way. Use formats that are most conducive to the question you’re asking. For example, when asking respondents to gauge how strongly they feel about a given topic, provide just enough choices to include all possible respondent answers, but not so many as to overwhelm. And, avoid yes and no questions except when filtering. They don’t tend to reveal very much.  

Mine results for the “sexiest” news. The best surveys reveal two or three unexpected and newsworthy nuggets. But even if results yield only one, if it’s truly salient, it can grab press attention such as this survey which found a majority of Americans believe fake news when they see it! Once you’ve settled on your headline, bolster it with client quotes as well as external expert quotes to help build credibility.

Don’t stop with a press release. That is only the beginning. Make your survey work harder by drafting an article based on the results or creating an infographic with the most startling findings. Pitch your client to appropriate media to discuss the survey in a greater context. Use the results as a starting point for an industry white paper and make it as shareable as possible. Slice and dice the relevant info for social media mentions for miles!

Put an even longer tail on survey results. Even if your findings aren’t enough for a standalone article, work with reporters to position the results as worthwhile data for other articles the publication may be doing down the road. Survey data is good for a year, at least. And, most often the publication will credit the organization for supplying the data. In the best circumstances, you will repeat the survey annually and press will subsequently include YOY survey results in related press releases and media pitches.

Public Relations And The Big Lie


As journalists grapple with “alternative facts” and the Trump administration’s war on the media, some professional public relations people are putting ourselves in the shoes of those who act as spokespersons for the new president. Those shoes are pretty uncomfortable.

As the Trump and the media squared off, I was struck by a provocative post exploring the president’s PR skills. Bob Pickard, CEO of Signal Leadership Communication, makes the case very well. In “A Publicist President” Bob warns:

Trump shows us the fearsome power of PR methods for mass persuasion just as surely as Edward Bernays did with the ‘Torches of Freedom’ campaign in the 1920s which helped convince millions of women to take up cigarette smoking under the guise of empowerment. Some might argue that Trump has not been doing PR so much as engaging in something much more sinister; namely, ‘propaganda’ (also the title of Bernays’ seminal book of 1928).

I’ve blogged about Trump’s PR and media skills myself, but it’s increasingly hard to accept his example as a model of effective public relations. For one, few PRs want to be associated with someone as controversial, mercurial, and downright unpopular. But even if you approve of Trump, in my view, he’s too impulsive a communicator to earn that label.

The comms guy as liar-in-chief

Trump’s true PR strategy – and his stunning success in dominating news coverage – is perhaps best seen in those operatives and others who have set the course, shaped his image, and occasionally helped save him from himself. But the transition to governing has been rough, and lately the team finds itself playing defense. This may be normal for a new White House, but for professional PR people, it’s also a warning. That’s because lately some of Trump’s staff have clearly experienced a PR person’s worst nightmare – being asked to lie for the boss.

The most damning stereotype for a PR person is probably the trope that we are nothing but spinmeisters or, worse, “professional liars.” Now, any PR or press rep will tell you that the fastest way to lose credibility is to be dishonest to the press. It’s just not true that PR is professional lying. But that’s the box Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway found themselves in over the weekend. The situation was all the more untenable by its relative pettiness; they were made to defend the new president’s claims not about national security or a major policy decision, but the size of the inauguration crowds in Washington, D.C.

For anyone watching Spicer’s first statement as White House Press Secretary last Friday, it was painfully clear that he was speaking not for himself, but for the boss. Spicer gamely railed against the press, angrily criticizing them for presumed distortions. He even built a detailed case for why the side-by-side photos of the Trump inauguration and President Obama’s 2008 ceremony were somehow inaccurate. In subsequent TV interviews, Conway tried to deflect to larger themes, but when cornered by NBC’s Chuck Todd, she reinforced the crowd size falsehood, eventually saying that the administration was offering “alternative facts.” From a communications point of view, it was a bad start for the new White House, to say the least.

For the public as well as the PR industry, the Trump-media brouhaha is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s encouraging that #alternativefacts was trending on Twitter within hours of Conway’s appearance in recognition of its utter speciousness. The #seanspicersays and #spicerfacts memes were even bigger. Jokes about Spicer’s credibility dominated social platforms and even made their way into weekend sports events.

But the falsehoods also evoke old stereotypes in our business. They made me remember a small but damaging survey of corporate communicators in which the majority admitted that they had lied to the media as part of their job. Ugh – and those are the liars who’re telling the truth! A broader survey conducted by DS Simon reveals that 90% of media, bloggers, and web producers feel they have at some point been “misled” by PR people or their outreach.

So, how can we rise above the deception? It’s easy to say that Spicer should have quit rather than risk his reputation, particularly about something so petty. It’s also popular to criticize Conway for her numerous deflections on-air interviews. Fortunately, most of us never face a choice like theirs.

But here’s the reality. There are times when a corporate spokesperson has to hide behind a technicality, or stonewall to prevent premature disclosure of material news. Outright fabrications, on the other hand, are very rare. And when they do happen, it’s often a symptom of an equally troubling issue –  that senior PR officers aren’t always in the loop when big changes are afoot. Or, worse, their view is discounted.

That’s symptomatic of the problem here also. Spicer undoubtedly knew that challenging the media over its reports of the inauguration crowd size was a bad move that would squander whatever honeymoon period Trump may have enjoyed with the White House press corps. But he wasn’t able to convince Trump of that. Conway, too, is famed as a Trump whisperer, but there she was, doubling down on TV and deepening the hole that the administration was digging.

Until the best in our profession are able to influence the powerful that lying is not only wrong, but counterproductive, we will be vulnerable to stereotypes of dishonesty and spin. That’s why every professional communicator of note has to refocus on the communication within our own organizations. We must recommit to transparency, to ethical relationships with media and partners, and to debunking the biggest lie of all — as when a high-profile example paints an entire administration – or profession – with one dishonest brush.

A Journalist’s POV: 3 Questions From A PR Agency

Donna KimuraprIn public relations, it’s often said that you’re only as good as your media contacts. We at Crenshaw pride ourselves on nurturing real relationships with journalists, beyond mere constant pitching.

For clients for whom key trade or vertical publications are important, those connections are doubly important. Not only do they help generate targeted media coverage, but they’re often influential for media who cover their sector for key business or general news outlets. As well, exposure in these key verticals often leads to increased conference consideration and other industry event inclusion. Donna Kimura, Deputy Editor at Affordable Housing Finance falls into that category. Donna is also a great communicator, and we’ve had the pleasure to work on several stories together. She was good enough to take some time to answer our three questions from a PR firm.

Can you cite a few traits of the ideal public relations person?  The best relationships I have with my contacts in PR make it a point to do the following:
• Review my magazine and/or website before making contact
• Personalize a pitch. Mass e-mails beg to be deleted
• Understand that good photos are important
• Recognize that publications often have a “digital first” mindset in addition to thinking about print products. This can translate into, how shareable might this story be? Is it pithy enough to hold the attention of someone impatiently clicking around a website, etc.

How much bylined content does AHF accept and what are some tips to writing for the publication? Affordable Housing Finance does enjoy publishing bylined articles from industry experts. The articles are mostly guest commentaries, and they are about current issues or on technical matters involving affordable housing development and finance. It’s a close-knit industry, so our readers like reading articles by their colleagues who are proven experts in the field.
We avoid general real estate stories and articles that take a broad look at housing affordability issues. From time to time, we will be pitched a story about the lack of affordable housing in the nation or a region, and we have to pass on those articles. Those stories are often great for a newspaper or another magazine, but our audience of affordable housing developers already knows there’s an affordable housing problem. We don’t want stories that are general. We want to drill down to the cover emerging financing trends, critical policy changes, and the latest deal closings that will help developers get their next project done.
AHF has a print magazine, a website, and a digital newsletter. Because space is limited in the print magazine, contributed articles mostly appear on our website and in our digital newsletter.

What are some absolute “never-dos” when it comes to pitching the pub?  My biggest pet peeve and one that I know I share with my colleagues, is sending a mass e-mail, and making it obvious. It shows a lack of knowledge and even etiquette. This faux pas is compounded when the PR rep sends a pitch about a subject that’s not relevant to the editor’s publication. For example, AHF reports on affordable rental housing. I receive e-mails about the opening of a new shopping mall or an office building, and when that happens the sender gets “blocked” so future correspondence from that sender goes straight to my junk-mail folder. Sorry. We say to Donna, no apologies necessary, any knowledgeable PR professional recognizes the importance of demonstrating the relevance of your topic to an editor. Taking the extra step of thoroughly researching an outlet before pitching can be the difference between sweet success and dismal failure.

How PR And Customer Service Can Work Together

Good customer service and good public relations have never been more aligned. One of the quickest ways to understand an organization’s reputation is to look at its response to a consumer complaint.

A company can spend millions on a brand reputation campaign, use high-powered PR agencies, and reap the benefits of CEO thought leadership, but if unhappy customers hit a brick wall instead of help, those investments may be squandered. In the age of social media, an unhappy customer has access to a digital megaphone to share their anger, and most are only too happy to use it.

Take a look at the recent YouGov survey of Most Improved Brands. On the list are Comcast/Xfinity, Uber, and Amazon. Comcast’s problems aren’t all in its customer communications; its entire industry suffers from a poor reputation, in part due to a lack of competition and steep prices. But when the “last mile” of the customer relationship is owned by a company rep who frustrates them with doublespeak, unresponsiveness, or missed appointments, there’s bound to be fallout. After a video of a Comcast service rep falling asleep on a customer’s sofa while on hold with the home office went viral, It had nowhere to go but up. In fact, Comcast made no bones of the fact that it rebranded its service as Xfinity to represent a fresh start for its reputation.

As a brand, Uber has inherent sex appeal, but it also suffered bad PR due to a slow response to emergency situations, insensitivity to customer complaints, and widely shared, if isolated, incidents of driver horror stories. Uber’s rating system goes a long way toward ensuring a good experience for customers, but it has drawbacks. The company also ran into some reputation roadblocks when it made the decision to outsource customer relations to “centers of excellence” outside the U.S. Buzzfeed reported that about 500 customer service reps were let go, leading to a bumpy transition, not to mention resentment among those fired without notice. In 2016, however, it seemed to steer things back onto a positive path.

Amazon sets the standard

Amazon has set the standard for customer commitment, giving rise to much debate and coverage of the “amazonification” of commerce. Although its customer service isn’t perfect, it’s nearly always innovative, and Amazon exerts an outsize influence by pushing others in retail to raise their own criteria. The true test for the future will be Amazon Go, and its widely promoted plan to open brick-and-mortar stores.

So how can public relations and customer service work together? Here are some practical ways based on our experience.

Involve PR in customer service messaging

We represented a company that was very successful selling specialized insurance online, but because many buyers failed to read and understand the policies they bought, they were disappointed if claims were denied and often vented anger and frustration on consumer complaint boards. The result was that pages of negative reviews turned up after a simple search of the brand name. Our program helped educate prospective customers about the insurance and how it works, and we worked with customer service to develop responses that not only showed a prompt commitment to resolving complaints (and escalating them where appropriate), but pointed them to third-party articles and information about the insurance. It was a very productive collaboration, but it doesn’t happen often enough.

Align the goals of public relations and customer service

You get what you incentivize. Too often, customer relations reps have goals related to the volume of inquiries handled. Meanwhile, the PR team is working to earn positive media coverage or drive a perception of value. If CR is evaluated and incentivized instead by complaint resolution rates, and/or customer satisfaction survey scores, the teams will working toward similar goals.

Empower CR reps to quickly resolve or escalate ordinary complaints

We’ve all had the delightful experience where a relatively minor complaint is met with a quick agreement to waive a penalty or credit a finance charge. For many situations, it’s worth it for companies to give customer service personnel the leeway to make quick decisions for minor matters. After all, what typically adds insult to injury is a lengthy wait where a complaint is escalated, or a non-response in the face of a legitimate problem.

Offer CR talking points or follow-up directions on sensitive issues

A couple of years ago I cancelled an account at an international bank that was hit with a money-laundering scandal. I had multiple motivations for moving the account, but when the bank rep asked why I made the move, I mentioned its terrible reputation as a drug-money launderer. She politely told me she understood and ended the call. It might have made more sense for her to ask if a bank representative could contact me later or send a note recapping the bank’s public apology and amends made in the wake of its settlement. The opportunity to build a relationship, even when it starts with a complaint or cancellation, is always worth taking.

Arm them with good news where appropriate

If a company has just launched a new product or it’s been reviewed with five stars by an important critic or community, it makes sense for the customer relations rep to know about it and have a quick talking point for callers who have relevant inquiries. It can also be a humanizing exchange.
According to telco services company Mitel, it takes 12 positive customer experiences to make up for one unresolved negative one. When PR and CR team up, those numbers improve, and we all benefit.

Increasing PR Productivity With New Tech Tools

Whoever said “there are only so many hours in the day” definitely doesn’t work in public relations. Our work is 24/7 and then some, when a major announcement or event is planned. So we thought it was time for a look at some new tech tools and apps to help our industry find more effective ways to save time and increase productivity.

Master time management with the Pomodoro Timer appThe app is based on the theory that we work best 25 minutes on and five minutes off. This method has been shown to help people focus, break down tasks more efficiently and most importantly, help prevent creative burnout. Just set the timer and go about your business. The New York Times takes the strategy one step further by advising what to do with your five-minute breaks.

Because we can all improve our writing. Check your work with After the Deadline. It goes beyond simple spell and grammar checks that offer technical corrections that are out of context or even wrong. After the Deadline can detect misused words and promises “contextual” spelling corrections and more sophisticated grammar and style checks that should cut editing time and improve our work.

Want to get closer to your contacts? Rapportive adds LinkedIn mini-profiles to people you’re connecting with, right in your inbox. You can learn more about where they work, what they do and who you know in common. This one-stop approach allows you to quickly and knowledgeably make contact, and yes, establish rapport.

Be a better blogger with Feedly. Having trouble coming up with timely topics and content that crackles? Let Feedly scour the Web for your particular pre-selected subject matter and “feed” you ideas you can use. It’s so much more than a Google alert because it improves your grasp of what’s out there across several mediums. Now that you have all kinds of wonderful topics to write about, if you need some help coming up with catchy names, you can always feed those topics into this tool from Hubspot.

Manage multiple social media accounts from a single “compose box” with Sendible. If Hootsuite, bitly, and Mention had a child, it would be Sendible. The site allows you to create and publish posts in advance – including photos and video on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest and blogging sites, from one dashboard.  It even shortens the links for you. Sendible supports over 20 platforms and boasts a sophisticated prospecting tool to help connect to and convert leads.

Get a handle on your social media with Self-Control. Not surprisingly this app was created for college students, but PR people love social media as much as anyone (maybe more since it is actually part of our job description to master the platforms for agency and client work.) This app allows you to block everything except text and calling on your phone for a set amount of time. We suggest giving it a test drive for an hour or so to see how productively you can fill up that time.

Employ Siri, Cortana and Alexa at the office to knock off some of your to-do list. You probably already dictate emails to a digital assistant, but you can also automate tasks. For example, you can set up alarms, notifications, location reminders and even when you want the office coffeemaker to go on. If you’re not thrilled with other services that we’ve discussed before to handle your social media posting, you can assign that task as well. Assign the digital helpers traffic estimates, directions to meetings and making travel and restaurant reservations. All are not created equal, however, as this article points out.

Tweet more robustly with Twibble. Save time and gain more followers by adding RSS feeds to Twitter, from virtually any source, easily and quickly. Twibble embeds photos and videos ( which most reviewers rave about.) Check it out to see if it lives up to its promise to make you much more interesting to your followers and potential followers.

Need an elusive email address? Game the system with Email Hunter.  There are few things more frustrating than attempting to make contact with a company CMO or a particular journalist whose email is somehow a state secret. We all have tricks to locate emails, but none are foolproof and they all take time. Email Hunter promises to cut time and effort by providing the “most common email pattern,” plus additional info like phone, title and the contact’s other social networks.

Know your contacts before you reach out to them with CrystalKnows. Once you get over the slightly creepy Big Brother vibe, CrystalKnows might actually help you better hone and personalize your communications style with different individuals. Using its DISC (Dominant, Influencing, Steady, Calculated) assessment tool, you gain personality insights into individuals at companies you want to work with or journalists you want to pitch. Simple, subtle changes to emails, for example, can help you connect more meaningfully. At the very least, it’s a fun and enlightening exercise.

How To Manage A Press Conference (If You’re Not Donald Trump)

Donald Trump gave his first press conference as President-Elect yesterday. Reactions to the presser may vary with the political views of the observer, but most professional PR people would probably say it did not go well.

Overall, the transition team seems to be stuck in campaign mode. The briefing was staged more like a mini-rally than a presidential press conference, complete with applauding Trump employees, odd visual props, and angry insults for some of the attending media. In his answers to press queries, Mr. Trump offered a jumble of rambling responses that wandered away from the question, off-the-cuff stories and comments, and even a little of his old reality-show shtick (referring to his sons running his business, he proclaimed, “If they screw this up, I’ll tell them, ‘you’re fired!'”)

The Trump presser was a highly unusual situation, even for a President-Elect. First, team Trump hadn’t given a press briefing since July 27, so media had plenty of pent-up frustration, and far too many questions for one session. To complicate things more, CNN broke into its regular programming the evening before with the story that U.S. intelligence leaders had included information in President Obama and Mr. Trump’s Friday briefing about claims that Russia has compromising information on Trump.

The report was followed by the publication of an “explosive” document by Buzzfeed that purports to be a foreign intelligence report on the information itself.
Managing a major press conference is challenging even if you’re not facing questions about being a Russian asset, and it’s not my place to weigh in on the hot mess that is Trump’s feud with the U.S. intelligence community. But there are some learnings from yesterday that can benefit organizations with more conventional needs and goals.

First, set and communicate ground rules

Even when you don’t face negative questions, it’s hard to manage a room of journalists, for the simple reason that there are more of them than there are of you, and each wants an individualized take on the news. (And if the media don’t outnumber your own representatives, then you probably shouldn’t be holding a press briefing.) To maximize control over the situation, decide how much time you will devote and/or how many questions you will take, and communicate that at the outset. We advise clients to allow a little more time than promised to convey an attitude of openness. It also helps to ask journalists to limit their queries to a single question at a time. The multiple questions lobbed at Trump from individual reporters contributed to the confusion on-site and Trump’s tendency to wander from the matter being put forward.

Stick to your objectives

Whether the briefing is intended to announce a new product or exert damage control, smart communicators set target outcomes as well as the key points they want to deliver in the session. They decide in advance which questions they will answer and which they need to deflect or decline to answer. Given the news that broke the night before its scheduled session, the Trump team might have done better to delay its briefing about his plan to avoid business conflicts, so that it could respond to the pressing intelligence report allegations and later focus more completely on the story it wanted to tell. As it happened, the presser resulted in a jumble of storylines and a somewhat diluted media take on the future of the Trump Organization business. For Trump, the chaos may have been intentional, but for most organizations, it would have been a disaster.

Designate a moderator

It helps to have a moderator who will control the flow of questions, gently cut off overly persistent reporters, and move things along if it becomes bogged down or threatens to be derailed. When the key executive has to be that person, it can hamper his focus and even undermine the credibility of his messages. Under normal circumstances that role would have gone to someone like future White House press secretary Sean Spicer, but on Wednesday his role was more like media attack dog, which was redundant with the role of Trump himself, and overly antagonistic.

Prepare your speaker(s)

For business pressers, it’s standard operating procedure to have more than one spokesperson for a complex or multilayered announcement, and to communicate specific expertise within the organization. Those spokespersons are rehearsed in intensive sessions where they practice responding with accurate, jargon-free points that conveys the major messages of the session. The key here is to use the spokesperson to deliver concise, top-level information, supplemented by more detailed material or data delivered either in written backgrounders or through follow-up interviews with secondary spokespersons. The Trump presser did this in part by introducing Mr. Trump’s legal representative to explain his plan to separate himself from his business. This was a good idea in theory, but it would have been stronger had the plan been more airtight and the lawyer allowed to take questions.

Know – and respect-  your audience

The Trump presser was somewhat overshadowed by a shouting match between Donald Trump and CNN’s Jim Acosta, who was denied the chance to ask a question as Trump yelled that CNN is “fake news!” Of course, demonizing the news media worked for candidate Trump, and it may still be part of the transition’s team strategy to discredit press whom they don’t like, but it doesn’t bode well over the long term. Journalists tend to punish those who deny them access, and though they compete hotly for stories, there is a solidarity among media. Everyone who deals with the press runs into challenges, and we often play favorites even if we don’t admit it. But it’s far smarter to nurse grudges quietly by rewarding journalists who offer fair treatment with first-crack at plum stories rather than stoking a public war with the media.

Donald Trump is the rare public figure who breaks the rules and gets away with it, at least so far. And that’s precisely why most organizations are smart to consider our President-Elect a model for what not to do. There are surely lessons to come.

The Top PR Trends For 2017

Like any other business discipline, public relations has changed in recent years. The Global Communications Report, a comprehensive worldwide survey of more than 1,000 senior PR executives worldwide, reveals that the worldwide PR industry is predicted to grow from its current estimated size of $14 billion to $19.3 billion over the next five years.

According to The Holmes Report, only 27% of agency leaders responding to the survey think the term “public relations” will adequately describe the work they do by the year 2020. Says Paul Holmes, ““The pace of change in public relations has never been faster than it is today, but at the same time, it will likely never be this slow again.”
It’s true that a PR agency staffer starting out in 2017 will be undertaking research, creating programs, and shaping stories in ways very different from just a few years ago, in large part due to the dominance of digital technology and the blurring of lines between paid, owned, and earned media outcomes that agencies are often charged with generating.

Here are the top new trends that are accelerating change in the practice of public relations and challenging old-timers as we move into 2017.

The PR Industry Evolves Beyond Its Roots

PR is about generating influence. 

True influence is precious at a time when “fake news” is itself making headlines. As communicators, we will be increasingly asked not only to generate coverage for brands and organizations, but to build the kind of relationships that actually influence behavior, and do so in a transparent way. Many have written about the changing nature of influencer relations in PR, and its move from celebrities and social media ambassadors to so-called “micro-influencers” – those that may not have a huge reach but that are trusted within social, demographic, or values-driven networks.

But PR itself is gaining influence, and rapidly.

Though it’s an evolution and not a revolution, that’s the real change for our industry. According to a 2015 Chief Communications Officer survey by Korn Ferry, CCOs in the U.S. are taking on more influential roles within their organizations. The takeaway for PRs? The study’s participants named leadership attributes like “courage, innovation, managing through ambiguity, developing talent, and contributing to strategy” as critical to their positions, which are wielding greater clout among C-level executives within the organization. These are among our new critical skills.

Content will move to new (and old) channels.

Today’s PR programs are less about selling and more about telling….stories that engage prospects or customers, and visual storytelling is hotter than ever. Earned media isn’t going away any time soon, but in recent years, social platforms have dominated. That may be changing in the near future, particularly as content marketing has reached a saturation point.The Content Marketing Institute’s Joe Pulizzi predicts a resurgence of print content led by brands and points to Airbnb, which recently launched a print magazine with Hearst.
An even hotter trend is content personalization, or using customer data or behavioral insights to create not just offers and promotions, but branded customized content for distribution through social or email channels. These may skirt the edges of a typical public relations person’s scope of responsibility, but, like the video explosion, it means that PRs will develop content marketing production and distribution skills and bring to their programs a sensibility that transcends the traditional earned media role.

PR and SEO are joined.

If PR is all about content, it stands to reason that PR and SEO must work together, and that PR professionals should have more than a passing familiarity with SEO and web analytics. When it comes to content, quality and relevance have replaced sheer quantity as a key metric. It all goes back to Google’s now-famous Penguin algorithm update, which as Bruce Kennedy puts it, led to “the shotgun wedding between PR and SEO.” Penguin penalized shady backlinks, keyword stuffing, and other black-hat SEO strategies in favor of quality content. To be shareable, content must be optimized, so fluency in SEO basics is a necessary skill.
But there’s a new development on the horizon known as “implied links.” Implied links are simply brand mentions that appear in earned or shared media. They’re undoubtedly good for visibility, but in the absence of a true link, they’re impossible to track. Google quietly filed a patent in 2014 that many in the search business feel presages an actual formula for tracking implied links. If true, it bodes very well for PR, which excels in generating powerful but maddeningly hard-to-measure  mentions.

Thought leadership is more important than ever.

In today’s business and media environment, overall business strategy and communications strategy are intertwined. Thought leadership is relevant not just to B2B organizations, but to consumer product companies.  The explosion of digital and social media has made every aspect of corporate reputation―from customer service to CEO behavior―relevant to brand image, and therefore to PR. Today, consumer and business brands need to be seen as leaders, and many have seen how an army of influencers can not only propel a business forward, but insulate reputation in the event of a reputation crisis. They must offer ideas and inspiration, not just great products and services. That means more professional communicators are focused on executive visibility and leadership, and that reputation management is built into every program.

The lines keep blurring.

One of our most important tasks is content creation, but with the explosion of digital content, distribution is more vital than ever if anyone is going to actually see and engage with the material. (See Mark Schaefer’s “content shock.”) But it’s tough to achieve scale without paid tools and tactics. The PRs of 2017 and beyond must therefore be fluent in techniques for finding content niches, new social communities and influencers, paid and unpaid distribution tactics, and emerging Google trends that will impact content sharing.

Everything is measurable and measured.
The rise of data-driven marketing has been a difficult transition for some PRs because few of us are data engineers and the old guard is unlikely to be trained in analytics. Consequently there’s been no industry standard for evaluation of earned media outcomes. But even without a universal formula for measuring brand mentions, PR is catching up to marketing. A coalition of professional groups has created guidelines for benchmarking and measuring PR programs, and while there’s no one-size-fits-all formula, there’s plenty of practical advice on how to use those principles.

Do’s And Don’ts Of A Successful PR Agency Partnership

Have you decided that 2017 is the year to form a partnership with a new public relations agency? Whether it’s your first foray into agency PR or you’re an old hand at such relationships, we have some advice to help you and your team create conditions for success.

Do be prepared to bare your (company) soul. For your PR team to both burnish and protect your company reputation, you must have honest conversations about the good, the bad and the ugly. One of the worst and most counterproductive things that can happen to an agency team is to be blindsided by something a journalist unearths about a client company. The best course is for the client to have a candid conversation about any vulnerabilities, including recent history. If there’s nothing there, so much the better, but a good reporter will find it if there is.

Do put important requests/promises and desired outcomes in writing. This, of course, applies to both parties. The best way to prevent misunderstandings is to memorialize any discussions in writing, which is standard operating procedure at most agencies. But it’s even more important to agree on outcomes, and to revisit them regularly. What’s not as useful is to agree to a list of abstract goals like “raising awareness” or “supporting sales” that exist only on paper are aren’t revisited regularly or clearly defined on a quarterly basis. That leaves both the agency and the internal team vulnerable to scrutiny without proper ammunition when budgets are reviewed.

Do link PR success to business outcomes. We’ve tackled this topic before but can’t stress enough the importance of setting business-based goals and KPIs at the outset to keep all eyes on the prize. This focus also prevents firms from falling into the trap of “quantity over quality” when setting a media relations strategy. The best compliment a firm can receive is when a client can tie a successful business outcome (increased site visits, conversions or funding, let’s say) directly to PR agency work.

Don’t expect the PR agency to do it all. No PR firm can operate in a vacuum. The best clients feed agencies information early and often. One of our favorite clients begins many conversations with “I don’t know if this will be of any interest” and then lays something very cool on us, such as the first-ever swimming pool design from a 3D printed model. To help jog client memories and keep the pitch pipeline full, we rely on very detailed weekly meeting agendas that provide numerous opportunities for even the most reticent clients to keep us informed of company goings-on.

Do adhere to the scope of work – or expand it with proper adjustments. Today’s PR agencies do much more than media relations. Our scope of work can include everything from management of a client’s entire social media presence, drafting executive thought leadership platforms and bylines, and putting together extensive panel discussions with lots of moving parts. PR agencies excel at this work but as clients look to add on these initiatives, the partners have to discuss and agree on additional budgets. Even the best relationships will suffer from unaddressed “scope creep.”

Don’t start the relationship on an adversarial note. A colleague who joined from another agency told us about a client who started a meeting by telling the agency team, “You’re the third firm we’ve had in a year, so, what’s different about you?” We’ve heard entreaties like, “We have very little budget and need to turn things around quickly, so we’re counting on PR!” There’s nothing wrong with stretch goals; in fact, they are recommended. But this type of challenge can set a more negative tone than the client intends and it fails to create the right conditions for success. There’s a fine line between what is challenging in a motivational way and what is simply counterproductive.

Don’t be shy about your preferred work style. A good example is to determine how the agency and client communicate ongoing work status. Weekly calls and monthly face-to-face meetings seem to be the agency standard, yet a good client relationship is a flexible one, with each side feeling comfortable to change it up. Therefore, we have some clients who often forego the weekly call – preferring short check-in calls every (or nearly every) day, while others keep mostly to online communication. There are no absolutes, and the best agency partners work to accommodate individual work preferences.

Do have each other’s back. As in any relationship, respect and support for each other’s work is critical. Also critical, the ability to forgive a mistake, to pick up the pieces if a deadline is missed and to repair a relationship threatening to go south. For clients, this can mean propping up a PR team member to a skeptic on the client side. For the firm, it may mean doing damage control with a journalist your client snubbed. It’s important to keep in mind that every client/agency relationship has bumps – which we work to smooth out – so we can celebrate the successes that help define a perfect PR partnership.