April Accolades

Entering industry award competitions can be time-consuming, particularly for a client-driven business. But it’s worth it when you get word that your entry was named a finalist by a jury of experts! We received word this month that we are finalists to win a SABRE Award as well as a PRSA Big Apple Award for campaigns we ran for two clients – wearable safety startup Wearsafe, and Jopwell, which helps technology companies build a more diverse workforce.

There’s nothing better than recognition from your peers for jobs well done. Watch this space to see if we find ourselves in the winner’s circle.

PR Tips For Building Your Personal Brand

Throughout the past decade, public relations pundits have trumpeted the rise of the personal brand in the digital era. By now we expect that many have mastered the basics of personal branding, but it’s not as easy as setting up a social media presence and hoping an audience finds you. There are concrete steps to take to build and extend your brand once you’ve established an initial presence.

Steps for Extending Your Brand

Ask this bottom-line question: have you created an online presence that conveys credibility and authority or expertise in a given area? Does it tell a story about who you are?

To find out, do an informal brand audit

Whether a marketing firm handles this or you opt for the DIY approach, the idea is to analyze how your “brand” is performing compared to its stated goals. A personal brand audit can include the following steps:

Creating a personal “mission statement” and goals

Identifying your place in the marketplace compared to competitors and colleagues; what are your strengths and weaknesses in light of your goals? What do you do better than most? What do you want to be known for?

A look at your audience and their expectations; what does your audience want? Where does your offering overlap with your audience’s needs?

The audit’s results can inform tactics for attaining visibility, engaging visitors and growing followers.

Set content goals

Begin with a content plan. This should encompass key topics related to your expertise, content frequency, and the most relevant social platforms. Monitoring content performance will help determine whether the content you’re producing is helping you meet your goals. Consider relevant content marketing metrics like leads, UVM and social media engagement. And if you’re not where you want to be, there are other ways to increase your brand visibility. For example, consider adopting a regular commenting strategy to help demonstrate your expertise. As we’ve written, commenting can be useful for engaging peers and prospects and, over time, for content ideas. Think about adding value with a sharp observation or question. Commenting on blogs helps define your brand, and when done well, attracts visitors to your site  Add this to a revised brand plan, with an achievable goal – like becoming a community member of the top five blogs in your industry.

Share parts of your journey – good and bad – as they happen

Every brand should have a story. Yours is likely a mix of your personal narrative and the career steps and experience that have informed the insights and expertise you offer. If you’ve experienced a critical turning point and what you’ve learned is helpful to others, share it. If you have practical pointers on securing financing, hiring hints or partnership advice, share that as well. Tales of adversity along a journey also make for great content, because everyone can identify. Jim Curtis, President of custom healthcare publisher Remedy Health Media, loves to tell the story of how a mistake he made at his brokerage firm made him realize his real passion, healthcare, and start a new career. These stops along the way are fodder for multiple content options like speeches, blog posts, bylined articles and more.

Show off in a smart way

When your brand has established a foothold, it’s time to crow a bit. Showcase the knowledge and experience that has brought you to this point. Importantly, “show off” in a voice that’s truly yours. We aren’t all brash risk takers like Elon Musk or committed philanthropists like Burt’s Bees co-founder Roxanne Quimby. Although “be authentic” can be overused, it has never been more relevant than in the era of fake news. Think about who you are and embrace the voice that is yours once you find it.  Then take it out for a spin. Step up your speaking game. Invest in trade or business PR to tell your story to the press. Partner with complementary businesses to create content and other marketing initiatives such as co-sponsored panels and other events. Find dynamic and interesting ways to display your thought leadership and draw traffic to your profile and website.

Have a differentiated point of view

There’s no better way to stand out than by developing a distinct point of view. It might be contrarian or revolutionary or just outside of mainstream thinking. A new business book poised to hit the bestseller list is called Lovability: How to Build a Business That People Love and Be Happy Doing It touting the importance of turning business strategy and product roadmaps into customer love. You may not be ready for a book, so use your comment strategy and your social profile make your voice heard. Daily writing like this will help prepare you to tackle longer content, like a research-based whitepaper. Well-written long form content can be effective no matter what kind of business you have; the best content offers solutions to business problems without being self-serving.  But it should be persuasive, urging the reader to take action, like identifying expert resources like yours.

Create data

Think of ways to generate data or statistics in your area of expertise. This could be a survey of industry colleagues or an online poll or petition geared toward a key population. The more provocative and newsworthy, the better. Media love data, so look for ways to generate publicity for the effort. Data can also be useful in planning your content program. Review your own analytics to see what’s working and what can be improved. This can lead to some tough decisions like overhauling your social presence and your website, but evolution is part of branding success.

Consider a “next act” 

This doesn’t mean give up your day job. But having mastered personal branding, it may be a good time to consider branching out in a complementary way. For example, many professionals harness their skills and begin teaching or coaching as an avocation. These endeavors broaden experience and offer fresh ideas to communicate through content and discussion. Still, others opt to go headlong into a meaningful mission or cause beyond business. If feasible, elevating your sites through philanthropic work by joining a board or volunteering for a high-profile event is a win-win because it will raise your personal profile while satisfying your idealism. Then there are those who make a complete 180, who abandon lengthy careers to pursue the arts or travel. As romantic as that seems, however, there are pitfalls, as this Medium piece points out, so think long and hard about a total personal rebrand.

American Airlines Soars Through A Potential Crisis

At least one company learned something about PR and reputation from the United Airlines fiasco earlier this month. Over the weekend, Twitter and Facebook lit up with smartphone videos of a fresh instance of passenger distress on an airplane. This time it was a scuffle between an American Airlines flight attendant and a passenger who had tried to put a stroller in the overhead compartment. Apparently the attendant pulled the stroller from the woman’s grasp, striking her and narrowly missing her child.

The videos of the American flight captured only the aftermath of stroller-gate, and they didn’t match the disturbing pictures of Dr. David Dao being pulled screaming from his seat. But most of the images, which quickly went viral, showed a deeply distressed mother of twin toddlers, sobbing openly, as the flight attendant shouts down another passenger who comes to her aid. It’s not a good look for American, yet the outcome in this case was very different from that of the United incident.

American avoids the worst with a fast and sincere apology

And here’s why: American posted a statement on its website within hours of the altercation. Although it notes that it is investigating the situation, the statement conveys empathy for the female passenger and reports that preliminary steps have already been taken.

“The actions of our team member captured here do not appear to reflect patience or empathy, two values necessary for customer care. In short, we are disappointed by these actions. The American team member has been removed from duty while we immediately investigate this incident.”

The statement also includes a carefully crafted and sincere-sounding apology to the woman affected. Unlike the mealy-mouthed mea culpas that often result from such incidents (for fear of litigation), it emphasizes that the passenger was wronged, and that some kind of rectification has already been attempted. We learn that the woman and her family had been put on another flight to their destination and upgraded for their trouble.

The message here is clear – despite the fact that the airline’s rules state that only collapsible strollers can go on their planes and that they must be checked at the gate, American doesn’t try to hide behind a legalistic response. It knows that it doesn’t matter if the passenger was technically in the wrong; what matters is that a mother of small children is sobbing because of the actions of an airline employee, who is recorded shouting at another passenger.

Unlike the initial response from United to its crisis, the communications team at American shows awareness that public sympathy would naturally be with the passenger, and that a quick, clear, and apologetic response to the situation was essential to controlling the social and traditional media coverage. And of course American had the advantage of learning from the United fiasco. Other companies, both within and outside of the airline industry, should take note. This is how it’s done.

What We Learn From Famous PR Failures

Later this year, The Museum of Failure will open in Sweden. Those in public relations will notice the product flops it reportedly features, like Colgate beef lasagna, Harley Davidson perfume, and, of course, new Coke. But we like the museum for the lesson behind it, which is that even the biggest brands and most successful companies are capable of failure.

It also inspired us to look at famous (and infamous) PR “fails” over the decades as examples that even big brands can mess up.

Can You Head Off PR Failures?

In PR a failure could be characterized as a campaign that never caught fire, a pitch that fizzled or a relationship that went badly off course. So, we can’t prevent them, and those day-to-day missteps probably prevent other, larger flops. When a truly whopping mistake happens, — well, sometimes it takes time and perspective. Consider these “historic” PR failures.

The giant (melting) Snapple popsicle

NBC News called it “disaster on a stick.” And we’ll never forget it because the 2005 stunt by Snapple happened just a few blocks from our office. The 25-foot icepop caper was the brand’s attempt to break the Guinness record for the world’s largest popsicle in order to promote a new beverage flavor. It wasn’t a bad idea — visual stunts can be mediaworthy, and reaching for the record presumably gave the giant pop an extra reason for being.  But the whole thing melted down as the brand tried and failed to have a crane lift the rapidly softening giant pop upright, and Snapple called off the stunt amid rivers of sticky pink water gushing down 17th Street. The Snapple ice pop will live in PR infamy, yet it probably raised more awareness of the brand (and arguably for its new flavor) than an ordinary event would have.

Urban Outfitters’ “Holocaust chic”

It could have been a simple product mistake; Urban Outfitters launched a short-lived tapestry featuring gray stripes and a pink star that many thought was reminiscent of the striped pajamas that concentration camp prisoners were forced to wear during the Holocaust. We tend to think the retailer was being intentionally provocative, given its history of controversial products (see: Kent State splattered sweatshirt), so we give it a failing grade on this one. Unfortunately, Urban Outfitters isn’t the only retailer to launch a product that reminded some of Nazi Germany. Zara was forced to pull a yellow-star-emblazoned striped t-shirt off the market after similar concerns were expressed by the Anti-Defamation league. The commonsense lesson: stay far away from Hitler references or holocaust imagery, unless you want to be seen as exploiting a historic tragedy to make a sale.

The “Iron Man 3” fake attack

Compared to the giant ice pop, this one was just a local promotion, but it was far more alarming. Only a year after the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting that killed 12 people, a Missouri theater owner staged a fake attack to promote a screening of “Iron Man 3.” He sent a costumed character carrying a fake gun into the theater, prompting several audience members to call the cops. Luckily, no shots were fired, but the performance may go down as the stupidest — and most dangerous – PR stunt in history.

Justine Sacco’s careless tweet

The storm set off by a flippant tweet from a young PR executive three years ago seems a lot less shocking in the age of Trump. But Sacco’s experience was an object lesson in how ruthless the social mob can be, and how quickly things can turn when you don’t, or can’t, address a mistake right away. Just before leaving on a flight to her native South Africa for Christmas in 2013, Sacco, a smart and presumably social-media-savvy employee of IAC, posted a racially-charged tweet about AIDS. It was an attempt at snarky humor, but when she landed 11 hours later, thousands of angry tweets greeted her, including one from her employer. Sacco lost her job, her reputation, and probably her personal bearings as she grappled with the consequences of that single tweet. Today, she’s a poster child for internet shaming, and her experience is a personal branding lesson that everyone should heed.

Starbucks “Race Together”

This one had good intentions, and we give Starbucks points for its 2015 initiative designed not to promote a new drink, but to start an important national conversation. The idea was for Starbucks baristas to write “Race Together” on cups and to actually engage customers in a dialogue about race relations. Even beyond the practical considerations (who has time to start a heavy conversation on their way to work?), “Race Together” became late-night joke material and died a quick death.  Yet, as Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz later explained, “The irony is, we did create a national conversation — not how we intended, but you learn from mistakes.” Well said.

“Don’t let your failures define you–let them teach you”

Barack Obama said this, perhaps to Hillary Clinton, who has known some failure in life, or maybe just to anyone who has experienced a setback, which means everyone.

Mistakes happen, and their lessons begin when we take responsibility for the part we own, then forgive ourselves. So, we should remember failures, because they keep us humble, honest, and hungry for success. I had a colleague who kept a hard copy of a very negative story from a past media relations campaign. She said she needed to know that despite her best efforts, things could still go south. It’s not an incentive that would work for me, but for her it was a reminder to do her best work. For most of us, that motivation just might be a walk down the halls of the Museum of Failure.

The PR Case For The Social CEO

Not long ago, a chief executive could lead a business, even a large one, fairly quietly, leaving public relations and social media management to the corporate communications team. The CEO job was mainly to deliver a strong financial performance.

Today, things are different. A capable business leader is expected to also serve as a brand ambassador, a voice for corporate reputation, and a social media personality.

Yet social engagement presents both opportunities and risks for the top guy. Steve Tappin puts it well when he explains that the rise of social media represents not just a technological shift, but a cultural one, for business leaders. Mastering digital technology is the easy part. Shaping a unique point of view and knowing when and how to weigh in is a bit trickier. C-level executives feel pressed to grow a presence on major social platforms and to show currency on matters ranging from politics to pop culture.

Are Social CEOs More Successful?

When used well, social media blends direct communication with customers and employees, thought leadership, and brand-building. Above all, it helps create a more accessible and authentic image for a C-level leader and the business s/he represents.

But are socially adept CEOs actually more successful than those who shun the social spotlight?  Those who push CEOs to be social tend to be―surprise!―PR and digital marketing people or other chief executives with a vested interest, like Ryan Holmes, CEO of Hootsuite.

And there’s the risk factor.  It hasn’t helped that our current president is famous for his use of Twitter. Mr. Trump’s impulsive tweets have been a red flag to some corporate executives who dread being his target, and who’d rather be below the radar in any event. Only 39% of Fortune 500 CEOs have a social profile, and most who are active on social media use the relatively tame LinkedIn.

Yet there is some objective data that makes the case for the social CEO. A 2015 Weber Shandwick study found that executives who are active on social media or create content for digital channels are seen as good communicators and are among the most well-regarded business leaders.

Most PR and reputation experts agree that a strong social profile is a means to differentiate a business executive’s brand as well as convey the kinds of ideas and opinions that inform a thought leadership platform. It’s also efficient. A social executive can reach and engage with journalists, influencers, and employees with a single tweet or post. Social content has a humanizing effect on the brand, making it and the resulting conversation more authentic.

Beyond the most celebrated social CEOs like Marc Benioff and Richard Branson, I think Lenovo’s Yuanqing Yang does many things right as an ardent social media proselytizer. Yang is more typical of the future CEO, who will increasingly use social platforms (his are Twitter, LinkedIn, and Weibo) to build and engage a global following.

One benefit of a strong social profile that doesn’t get enough attention is the internal PR factor. A social media presence can help with recruiting and employee communications.  It’s also not just about broadcasting your views or posting company updates; true social engagement is about interaction. Yang is a LinkedIn Influencer, but he makes it a point to interact directly with the public so that his company and its customers can learn from each other.

Seven Tips for the Social CEO and C-level Execs

Social media is most valuable to a social CEO or C-level executive as part of an overall communications strategy. Here are some key points to note in planning such a strategy.

Start by listening

Social sites like Twitter and LinkedIn are more than platforms; they are communities, and they can be unique vehicles for tuning into the conversations of customers and stakeholders. As Hootsuite’s Ryan Holmes points out, Twitter is a great source of intelligence―from competitors, analysts, pundits, and others.  After weeks of listening to conversations about your industry and issues that affect it, it becomes easier and more natural to engage others.

Stick to a social media strategy 

Which audiences can be reached more efficiently or powerfully through social content? For example, a strong C-level LinkedIn profile and quality content relevant to prospective hires can enhance a company’s recruiting function. What are the organization’s communications priorities when it comes to telling its story?  Where do visuals come into play in simplifying a complex technology or scientific narrative? What simple metrics (engagement, re-posts, followship) can you set to gauge progress?  A simple strategy will help keep the social program from becoming a casualty of being overly ambitious. Only 62% of CEOs with a Twitter account are active, according to CEO.com.  Maybe they wanted to claim their handle to head off hijackers, but it’s not a good look for a CEO to have a dormant Twitter feed. It looks like no one’s home.

Share the responsibility

We talk about the social CEO, but a social media commitment is something that can and should be shared across key members of the leadership team. Most senior teams offer distinct subject-matter experts, and that expertise is both valuable and shareable. A CMO or chief revenue officer will offer insights that are different from those of a quality officer or chief executive, but social content should be linked by a common strategy and organizational values. When it comes to social media, a shared commitment can take the pressure off the top guy, but more importantly, it extends the program and makes it more authentic and enduring.

When it comes to content, mix it up

Some C-level tweets are painfully self-conscious. Others are clearly composed by others – overly commercial, colorless and devoid of personality. It doesn’t have to be that way. A novice CEO should mix personal observations and opinions with sharper reflections about business or industry trends. Entrepreneurship and leadership are always fruitful topics. Business travel, last books read, the day’s headlines, family―all can be great social fodder. If all else fails, try sports. There’s always something happening, with a fan base to match.

Consider a C-level blog

A blog is still a natural hub for a CEO’s voice, and it’s a logical first step in establishing a content program. It’s also a practical way to address part of the problem of what to post/tweet.  It offers opportunities to mix it up with guest posts, post video entries or interviews, and use graphics to illustrate insights.

Invite commentary

This goes without saying; it’s the essence of social engagement. A skillful CEO will ask questions, use Twitter polls, jump on hashtags (judiciously), and RT or repost the content of other company leaders or customers.

Embrace advocacy

In my experience, advocacy can help many C-levels overcome reluctance or even shyness. It’s ideal if the platform is business-related―like STEM education for a technology company CEO or a focus on entrepreneurship for a CEO who got his or her start by bootstrapping a business.  But it isn’t limited to business; it can be support for a charity or other.  The important thing is a genuine connection.

An earlier version of this post appeared on The American Marketing Association’s Executive Circle blog on March 28, 2017.

How To Negotiate A PR Contract

Are there any tips that public relations can take away from high-level governmental negotiations? We think so. This week’s international machinations between the US and China and the US and Russia included the term “deconfliction.” This is the process of avoiding mutual interference, or outright hazards, among systems under the control of one’s own sides. We believe negotiations between PR specialists and clients also need to avoid “deconfliction” and other problems that can thwart a successful relationship. No matter which side of the table you’re on it pays to review the best ways to come to an agreement.

Use these negotiating techniques to get a PR relationship off to a good start

Reach consensus on achievable goals

From the outset, make sure there is mutual, agreed understanding on PR goals. In a recent conversation, we asked a potential client to prioritize the kind of exposure being sought. The conversation meandered a bit, but we persisted in framing and reframing the questions to get real focus on the company needs. This drilling down helped succinctly define the need for a higher percentage of consumer press with a healthy dose of B2B tech, a strategic approach we all agreed upon. Once the consensus is there and put in writing, the team can more easily craft a roadmap with reasonable expectations.

Use disciplined messaging

The same rules that PR teams use to prepare media spokespeople to stay on message in interview situations apply to client and agency negotiations. Terminology is very important and using the same language to describe certain contractual elements helps reinforce a position, avoid misunderstandings and keep both parties on the same page. In negotiating a PR agreement, it’s fundamental to understand your company’s offering and how to articulate it.  For example, if there are specific services that are standard, such as a news bureau or certain thought leadership tactics, make sure those are understood. The urge to slip in “creative extensions” or other extras like events or social media work, can happen, especially if the language isn’t spelled out clearly.

Look for meaningful credentials and relevant examples

There’s a feeling you get when you suspect a PR team is right for the job. They exude confidence and a command of the room, that all scream “we are the right partner for you.” And when that is backed it up with concrete examples including case studies and testimonials, an agency client partnership begins to take shape. Look for case studies that bring work to life via video and other visual means. The best PR case examples also go beyond a pretty clip book and number of impressions like this clever work for Expedia. Potential partners want to see where a team moved the needle for a product or service. The best teams tout experience and expertise with some healthy braggadocio – not to be confused with arrogance, but a breezy, natural confidence, backed up by great examples.

Be prepared to counter bad behavior

We’ve all been in meetings, sealing the deal on a PR engagement, when an executive on either side acts inappropriately.  Sometimes its “mansplaining,” cellphone use, lack of preparation or constant interrupting.  While its always best to try tactics to overcome these bad behaviors, we have left meetings when someone was too rude to work with.  Only a last resort, of course!  Overcome these behaviors at the outset with a few tricks of your own. We like these tips:

Dress your best. If you look professional and well put together you will project confidence. People are very quick to size up based on looks – it takes about six seconds to judge someone you meet.

Walk into the room without hesitation, standing up straight with head held high. Initiate eye contact,and a firm handshake. Take a seat beside those who demonstrate an affinity or just a positive “vibe.”

Stake your space. Don’t allow yourself to be cowed by someone else’s “space creep” overtaking the table with their computer, coffee cup and other effluvia designed to make them look more important.

Be a good listener so you can evaluate what is being presented and ask relevant, pertinent questions to inform a good decision, not just put a PR firm through perfunctory paces.

Keep in mind that both sides need to understand what what they bring to the table and how to make the most of a PR relationship. Look for a firm to demonstrate how they do what they do and what’s in it for your company. If you’re not hearing clear business outcomes or benefits that can be expected from a strategic PR plan, speak up.

Finally, be clear about what is needed from each party to make a PR campaign successful.  We like to get people talking about their company, providing news and anecdotes from the beginning. Often these conversations lead to interesting story angles we can use with press. It also sets the stage for our partners to move easily into a very collaborative role. People are more likely to get and stay engaged when given lots of opportunities to talk about what they do.

Know how flexible you can afford to be

Once the teams are talking money, its important for both sides to understand the program’s costs. Knowing the value of the firm’s services and what it will take for them to be both successful and profitable, makes for a sound start to any relationship. With any large investment, like retaining a PR firm, decision-makers need to understand why billing rates are what they are, or how much time certain activities take to implement. The firms should be expected to provide those answers, but the art of negotiation also means knowing before you walk into the meeting how flexible each of you can be. Negotiations should be probing, smart and civil.

Don’t leave the meeting until everyone’s satisfied

This is aspirational advice. Obviously some meetings need to be continued with revised proposals and “sharpened pencils.” But a successful meeting to finalize a PR partnership should involve healthy give and take, what professional negotiators sometimes refer to as “tit for tat.” Tit for tat states that a person is more successful in game theory if he cooperates with another person. Seems obvious and very much like one of the “what I learned in kindergarten” rules, although a bit more difficult to achieve in real-life negotiations. That said, leaving a meeting with all parties satisfied is the ideal outcome.

Break These PR "Rules of Engagement"

Want your public relations to rule? Then be prepared to break some rules. Face it, the typical client-agency relationship can sink into a routine that, over time, becomes a little too comfortable.  Companies partner with PR agencies to add value to their business, and that means offering new ideas and innovative ways of looking at the organization’s challenges and goals.

Not convinced? Look at leaders in fashion, music, and technology for inspiration. Mark Zuckerberg famously quit school (though that’s not so uncommon among technology founders.) Renowned architect Peter Marino dresses like anything BUT success. And someone forgot to tell famed chef and restaurateur Gabrielle Hamilton that it was okay for women to be kind in business (she figured it out.)

By the same token, there are some PR client-agency “rules of engagement” that can be chucked on occasion. Some have become obsolete, while others just need tweaking. We like this advice that music students train by: know the rules, then break them. Let’s see how rule-breaking applies to PR relationships.

Gain the confidence to break some of these PR rules.

Start a PR agency search with an exhaustive list of possible firms. 

Many tasked with organizing a search begin with a lengthy list of firms that might match their needs, based on size, type of clients, geography and other criteria. Then begins the job of whittling a list of a dozen agencies to a top three. We say, go ahead and break that rule. With more agencies using their website, blog, and social media platforms to showcase what they do best, it’s much easier to quickly narrow down top contenders. This creates a more focused, time-efficient search that should produce more successful relationships.

Issue a detailed RFP to gain necessary insight on each firm. 

Unless the engagement is with a state agency or company spending  $1MM+ in PR, an overlong RFP is a bloated relic of a bygone era. And they’re seldom great indicators of what a firm can actually do. Instead, boil it down to three simple steps.

Ask for credentials and applicable case histories

Arrange to meet in person, or at least by Skype to see what kind of chemistry exists

Assign a small, but demonstrative project to scope out an agency’s creative and strategic chops

The results should provide a fairly full picture of what working with a firm would look like and a level playing field for decision-making as well.

Hold weekly conference calls to keep abreast of activity.  

Client conference calls that involve a large group are sometimes more of a security blanket than a truly productive exercise. Lengthy calls can be very tactical and, depending on the specific week, unproductive. Who among us hasn’t missed something while scrolling on their phone or other screen during the call? According to a survey by Intercall, more than 60 percent of call participants admit to doing other work on conference calls. Check out their graphic for a list of what people were doing on your last call. (At our agency, of course, we would never “cheat” on a client call!) But when the weekly check-ins become too routine, or the group is unwieldy, change it up. We have one client who insists on email updates, one-on-one calls with account leaders and monthly in-person meetings (with no cellphones!)

Announce all news with a press release.

This is one of those rules that begs to be broken. It’s true that significant announcements like certain product launches, acquisitions, funding news and releases of major studies, for example, warrant a press release. For nearly everything else, there are other ways. Often clients think they should always do a release for fear of their news going unheralded. The truth is, according to PR Daily, nearly 2,000 releases are distributed each day. The chance of any story breaking solely through a press release is greatly diminished. Trust a savvy PR team to get the news out in a number of ways — most often with a pithy, well-written pitch, offering a “first look” to a select group of reporters. Some announcements have famously been made through social media, which can work if the platform and audience are a good fit, like Tesla’s Elon Musk on Twitter. It’s smart not to pigeonhole every announcement and leave room to brainstorm for the best way to reach an audience with company news.

Let the agency handle all media relations.

Not so fast. In our experience key trade media relationships may be best handled by client contact. For starters, many clients have trusted, long-standing relationships with industry publications, and it can be disruptive to insert the PR firm as an intermediary. Additionally, with many clients advertising in their own trades, editorial coverage may be low-hanging fruit. PR firms can advise on how to leverage such coverage, but their time and resources may be better spent cracking desired outlets outside of industry verticals, making this rule an efficient one to break.
Examine your company’s internal and external relationships and look for ways to improve them. Also consider reading The Upstarts, author Brad Stone’s investigation into a couple of non-conformist companies you may have heard of – Uber and Airbnb  – that offers great examples of successful rule-breaking that may be adaptable to any company.

When To Turn Down A Media Interview

It goes against all the instincts of a public relations specialist to turn down a media opportunity. Yet despite the adage that all PR is good PR, there are situations where the disadvantages of speaking to a reporter far outweigh the gains.

We don’t recommend an adversarial or “no comment” response, which is usually counterproductive. Instead we advocate taking a thoughtful look at all media inquiries to determine if they advance a company’s goals. And when they don’t, or worse, when a resulting story could cause harm, there are ways to manage the situation.

When to “Just Say No” to a Media Request

When the story direction is questionable

Sometimes a journalist takes a media pitch and goes in a completely different direction with it, to suit an editorial agenda, or simply because it’s a good story. A team pitches a new technology product, and the reporter decides to focus on threats to the category without attention to the product’s attributes. Or he approaches a company with a story in mind, and in the first discussion that angle has been replaced by a controversial one in a kind of bait-and-switch. This is why most PR people work to get information or even potential questions in advance, which can help determine if the interview is worthwhile. Additionally, research into the reporter’s previous stories can add insight, although it pays to remember that many story decisions are driven by editors. Sometimes the interview process is a long courtship where the reporter spends weeks or months gathering background, during which the PR team can assess its potential. If the interview process moves in a negative direction, it can be smart to withdraw tactfully. But if a journalist is bent on doing a story, we’ll often line up sources and recommend proceeding cautiously, for the simple reason that it’s often better to participate than be left out of a piece you can potentially influence.

When the story may have unwanted ramifications

Sometimes the story is positive, but the ramifications may be mixed. I was recently asked for advice from a colleague who works with a fledgling NGO helping refugees. A TV station had requested an interview with one particular family being helped locally. Although the reporter made it very clear that the story was to bring a local angle to an international crisis, it presented a dilemma: grant the interview to raise awareness and, potentially, donations and volunteerism; or risk the family’s privacy, possibly awakening critics. Our counsel here was to politely decline while offering a future story when the group had more advocates and was more established. We helped the journalist with alternative sources to maintain a positive relationship and leave the door open for future interaction.

When the spokesperson isn’t up to the task

Sometimes, despite all best efforts, a company is unable to offer an ideal spokesperson for a media interview. Some are nervous or defensive, or they may not be familiar with the subject matter. Even a well-intentioned effort by the wrong spokesperson can result in evisceration by determined reporters. The remedy for these situations is rigorous spokesperson vetting and professional media training that preps for all types of media interviews. These include simulated interviews with an unprepared reporter, a “nasty” journalist, or an inscrutable one who doesn’t show his hand. A good media prep session will help keep things on track, and videotaped simulations are helpful learning. Yet there are some people who are just not cut out for the job, and in those cases it’s best to invest in an alternative spokesperson or to opt for email interview questions. Despite the best preparation, sometimes things go awry. But this recent interview featuring a BBC interviewee interrupted by his kids is not only a terrific example of grace under pressure, but a reminder that we’re all human, and some “mistakes” aren’t mistakes at all.

When the timing is off

This is the most common situation, and it’s one that typically has a positive resolution. The good news is a journalist has gotten wind of your company’s new product, financing or acquisition. But it’s complicated, because talking about it too early could jeopardize the big announcement. Or management is undergoing some confidential changes and talking now just isn’t advantageous. Most PR people have reasonably trusting relationships with journalists, making it easy to offer an honest explanation and asking for more time. Any reporter will respond to a sincere offer of a first-crack interview within a reasonable period, but offer only what is ironclad.

When the outlet is questionable

A top-tier publication may contact the PR team with an inbound request, and it’s a terrific opportunity that falls into our lap. At other times, it’s a less reputable media outlet or one that is simply too small to spend executive time on a lengthy interview. These can be delicate situations, because a reporter starting out today at a niche blog can be tomorrow’s managing editor at an influential news organization, and it doesn’t pay to ruffle feathers. A polite decline is often in order, unless an email question and answer can be managed with help from the PR team.
Sometimes, less is more.

United Flies Into A PR Storm

The public relations team at United had probably just started to breathe easy after the “leggings” mini-crisis when a second PR disaster hit. And this one’s a doozy.

Late Sunday, a United passenger who refused to give up his seat on an overbooked flight was forcibly removed from the plane by police, to the horror of other passengers. Many captured the scene on their smartphones, and the video was more shocking than the headline; the man is screaming as he is wrenched from his window seat and dragged down the aisle, his face bleeding after apparently hitting an armrest. It’s the kind of treatment you can only imagine if he were a physical threat or a terror suspect, not an ordinary passenger.

The video, which went viral by Monday morning after being posted on Facebook by another passenger, is very disturbing. But for public relations and crisis experts, United’s immediate response was also troubling. As of midday Monday, the airline had issued the following statement.

“Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate.

We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities.”

A poor response compounded by a second

You don’t need to be a PR professional to think this is a pretty poor response. There’s no apology for the passenger’s humiliation, inconvenience, and injury. There’s no explanation for the use of force, and in fact the statement omits the bit about dragging a screaming, bleeding man from his seat. United uses the word “voluntarily” in an interesting way (if you don’t want to volunteer, we’ll make you!) and then passes the buck to unnamed “authorities” who were clearly acting at its behest.

The first rule of a case like this is to take responsibility. The initial response amounts to an utter abdication of that. And it clearly could have been handled more skillfully. According to other passengers on the flight, the airline said it needed four seats to fly its own employees to Louisville. It offered as much as $800 and a hotel stay to anyone who would volunteer to take a later flight, but it had no takers. Technically, United was within its rights to remove passengers; nearly every ticket we buy contains small print about the risk of being bumped. But airlines typically negotiate for volunteers before the flight is boarded, not after they’re seated on the plane. More importantly, there would seem to be better ways of persuading a reluctant “volunteer” than by force.

A second statement released by United CEO Oscar Munoz on Monday wasn’t much of an improvement on the first.

“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”

“Re-accommodate”? Really? The statement here is vaguely worded; United seems to be apologizing to its own crew, or possibly to passengers who witnessed the incident. Its use of “re-accommodate” is positively Orwellian. It still doesn’t take any responsibility for the decision to use force or the chaos and injury that ensued. What’s more, comments by United spokesperson Charles Hobart in a New York Times interview seem to blame the passenger for refusing to leave after being asked repeatedly and – as Hobart takes pains to emphasize – politely. “We explained the scenario to the customer,” Mr. Hobart said. “That customer chose not to get out of his seat.”  United is blameless, he seems to say.

If you’re responsible, say so

Blaming others – even when it reflects the reality of a situation – is nearly always a losing proposition in a public apology. Again, the airline is technically within its rights, but it’s shocking to me that, as the video continues to be shared by social and traditional media, United has not admitted that it badly mistreated a paying passenger and mishandled a common enough situation that could have been defused with far less effort and expense. Nor has it announced that it will try to limit overbooking, or pledge to handle it differently in the future. The non-apology apologies are only fueling anger and ridicule on social media.

The airline offered up to $800 for anyone willing to give up his seat and fly later. What if it had offered more – $1000 or even $5000? If that seems expensive, look at the video, think about the outrage, and consider the reputation damage involved. And what if the airline had taken a page from Pepsi, which suffered through a different, but embarrassing and expensive mistake last week, yet handled it deftly and gracefully?

It’s hard to put a price tag on reputation. But this latest incident should make the airline and its peers straighten up and fly right, at least on the communications front. Because the harm to the United brand will far outweigh the cost of doing the right thing.

Note: After posting I read this excellent article about the power of the airline industry post-consolidation, which states that an airline can only legally compensate bumped passengers up to $1350. Even so, United should and could have handled this very differently.

Boosting PR Campaigns With Targeted Video

As public relations campaigns become more sophisticated, they need to adapt to ever-changing digital habits and platforms. Though millions may have tuned into HBO for the finale of “Big Little Lies” this past weekend, millions more were watching it in some other form or on another device.

A current forecast says that 74% of all Internet traffic in 2017 will be video. As the passion for video grows, PR plans are expected to include a video component. To ensure that brands have a smart, targeted video voice, here are some ways to think about using video to boost a PR effort.

Targeted, Snackable Video Explains and Engages

Show, don’t tell: cardinal rule of successful video

Think about techniques like sharing a big announcement with video instead of a traditional press release, complete with background footage, shots of business or manufacturing in action, and talking head shots from one or two persons quoted. Take exciting news to a higher level with video like this one from Vulcan introducing a new video player, created for social sharing. Also to consider: provide a how-to with a colorful demo, or a Q+A. Gather a group of potential customers to ask a company spokesperson questions and answer them in a video. Finally, consider providing a behind-the-scenes look at a product-in-the works which can be livened up by use of animation as well.  

Video explainers demystify complicated concepts

One of the most effective and simple uses of video in PR is the video explainer. Sixty-five percent of us are visual learners whose eyes glaze over after reading a few wordy or technical sentences. Journalists are assaulted with written PR materials (some good, some very bad)  and because of that, may never get to your story. Have your eyes glazed over? With a simple, short video such as this one that we helped produce for a pain device, the concept is easily understood in under two minutes.

With video, remember one size does not fit all

RemedyHealthMedia, a leading digital publisher of condition-specific information for patients, discovered through research that different visitors respond to different types of videos. For example, someone recently diagnosed may need a long-form video to thoroughly explain a condition and offer insight from other patients. Others who have lived with a chronic illness may need a quick refresher or update on something specific to their condition – a more “snackable” piece of content would appeal to this audience. The key for PR teams is to research target audiences and learn about preferences as they plan and produce video.

The importance of authenticity

The era of fake news and alternative facts makes an authentic voice all the more important to a brand’s video content. Whether it’s the results of a newsworthy survey, a behind-the-scenes look at product development or a cool office tour, the key is to keep the video as real as possible. Use the actual people involved, stay away from anything overly-scripted and even let the warts show if it helps tell a real story. We like this customer testimonial video for Roku. The video also provides some helpful language useful for PR outreach to other media.

Use humor where appropriate to get attention in a video

How many times have you heard a co-worker crack up for no apparent reason? Odds are they were viewing a funny video like this one explaining 2017 rule changes for baseball. Humor can be particularly effective when a subject is dry. Brainstorm some of the best forms of humor and add creative topspin that can best tell a product or company story. These include parodies, impersonations, “hidden camera” spoofs, or animation. Important to remember here: the viewing public loves creative twists on the latest relevant topics like this week’s Pepsi commercial fail. Consequently, where we can leverage current topical news appropriately and to a business’s advantage, we recommend acting quickly to strike while the story’s hot.

Employ measurement techniques to test for success

Like any marketing initiative, video must be measured for effectiveness in connecting with an audience and, ideally spurring action. Start by reviewing the overall PR objectives – be they increasing awareness, driving attendance, promoting advocacy, etc. and see if a video campaign delivers. KPIs to consider include views, impressions and unique users and how they measure in terms of awareness, consideration and action. Useful tools for gauging video effectiveness include: Brand Lift, YouTube Analytics, and reporting in AdWords. Beyond those, brands can deploy consumer polls on more specific questions through Google Consumer Surveys. Measurement of social sharing is critical as well. According to Nielsen, 92% of consumers believe recommendations from friends and family over all other forms of communication when making a purchase decision.

Finally, in any campaign, action – conversion rate – is the most important business measurement. It’s vital to prove the effectiveness of the video by calculating the number of leads each one generates. To increase that kind of successful outcome, incorporate the steps above into your own unique brand story to help tailor future video output for a product or service.