7 Ways To Crisis-Proof Your Brand

What’s the cost of a brand crisis? As video of United Airlines passenger Dr. David Dao being violently dragged from his seat went viral last month, the media – and a global audience of prospective customers – were shocked. It may not have hurt the airline’s stock price in the long term, but CEO Oscar Munos’s promotion to Chairman has been shelved, at least for the time being. United’s reputation storm came just days after brand Pepsi weathered a different kind of eruption. It was hit with a barrage of social scorn for its glitzy, but tone-deaf, ad featuring Kendall Jenner at a generic social protest.

And for months prior to the Pepsi and United incidents, another big brand, Uber, sustained a rapid series of reputation dings that left it struggling to get back on track.  In addition to another viral video – this one of founder Travis Kalanick arguing with an Uber driver – the company was hit with ugly charges of sex discrimination in the workplace, detailed in a blog post by a female engineer who quit the company in frustration after only a year. To add to its woes, the New York Times exposed Uber’s stealth use of software to evade regulators in a major breaking story.

All three are large brands with the resources to come back from a negative situation. But each would likely agree that it’s better to prevent the situation in the first place—to be essentially “crisis-proof.” Problem is, it’s easier than ever for something that would once have been a local incident or a minor issue to blow up in a big way. Today, there’s always a smartphone nearby, the outrage machine is ready to get cranking, and the social mob is willing to pile on even before all the facts are known.  When it comes to a brand reputation crisis, digital media is the great leveler. It can take down CEOs, celebrities, and regular citizens. It also threatens brands – their immediate and future sales, as well as long-term value and stock price.

While there’s no way to truly “crisis-proof” a corporation or brand, there are steps that make it less likely to happen and its impact less severe.

Seven Steps To A “Crisis-Proof” Brand

Crisis-proof your business first

Easier said than done, of course, but according to the Reputation Institute, the majority of crisis situations are “simmering” rather than sudden. They’re more likely to arise from a pattern of misbehavior or echo mistakes that have happened before, but were ignored or covered up. One way an organization can protect itself is by empowering its employees. This is particularly important in companies like retailers and restaurants (and airlines!) with large and decentralized workforces that may experience high turnover. Those types of businesses are vulnerable to a local situation that spirals out of control. Not all can grant customer-facing employees the power to resolve a minor situation quickly, but those that can, should. When we hear about a customer being mistreated, we identify with him. It’s smart to empower those staff to resolve or escalate a complaint or unexpected situation by bending a rule, waiving a penalty, or granting the disgruntled consumer a quick benefit for their trouble. Which airline wouldn’t rather have a passenger tweet about the surprise upgrade (even at the risk of raising expectations) than get clobbered by public complaints?

Know your dealbreakers

There are undesirable incidents that can prompt customer complaints or negative coverage, and then there are crisis situations that can bring down a CEO or even a business.  The two are not the same. A rude employee or even workplace misbehavior isn’t necessarily an existential threat for most companies. United will weather the latest tempest, in part because the traveling public have low expectations of the airline experience.  But if you’re a baby food company and there are safety concerns about your product, that’s a dealbreaker.  If you’re a beauty brand positioned around diversity and you discriminate in the workplace, that’s a dealbreaker. Those are the scenarios that should be prioritized when planning a crisis response.

Hope for the best, but plan for the worst

Many armchair crisis experts will advise companies to have a crisis plan. That’s more complicated than it seems, because in today’s fast-moving business and media environment, many plans will be outdated by the time a real emergency hits. To crisis-proof your band, it’s best to cycle through one or more worst-case scenarios, based on prior experience and institutional knowledge of where the brand and the category are most vulnerable.  The baby food reference above comes from a brand I once represented that had undergone a near-fatal situation in which bits of glass were found in its products.  The problem was isolated, but once an outraged mom went public with her complaint, a deluge of reports of glass particles in products (most imagined) nearly brought down the company.  Even decades later, when most employees who experienced the incident had retired, a strong crisis-preparedness mentality prevailed, from the C-level to every rank-and-file employee.  It was in the DNA. And it showed in every aspect of the company’s business, from how it handled consumer complaints and managed sourcing, to manufacturing and marketing.  Naturally there was a detailed crisis-proof plan based on the actual incident that included a communications protocol refreshed quarterly with simulations for key executives.

Know how to apologize

It’s astonishing how often a large organization fails the apology test.  Most acknowledge that United made a bad situation worse with not one, but two attempts at a response that didn’t come close to being appropriate.  Among other things, a critical ingredient in an effective public apology is accepting responsibility for the problem.  Many companies stumble at that point because they fear legal repercussions or are warned by in-house counsel against admitting anything that could result in legal exposure.  But the court of public opinion demands a true apology.  Contrast United’s clumsy finger-pointing statements with Pepsi’s clear, swift, and sincere-sounding response to its failed ad. Just this week, comedian Kathy Griffin horrified Twitter – and the media universe – with a fake-gory photo featuring a “beheaded” President Trump. Griffin may not be a company, but, recognizing the damage to her brand, posted a swift and unvarnished mea culpa within hours of the photo. The apology video probably won’t win her any fans, but it will stop the bleeding, so to speak.

Appoint a crisis response leader

An effective crisis response plan usually involves an executive task force, which is a good thing. But when the stuff hits the fan, it’s crucial to move quickly.  Too often, precious minutes and hours tick away while a company’s management team or Board struggles with how to respond to a business-threatening emergency. A single decision-maker, usually the CEO or a chief communications officer, should take a leadership role in these cases. In a true crisis, there may not be a 100% “right” or “wrong” decision; the reality is more like shades of gray.  It’s more important to be swift and decisive than to be perfect. The enemy of the best crisis-proof response isn’t always a bad decision, but a late decision because paralysis has taken hold.

Have a top-notch media spokesperson at the ready

The crisis media spokesperson is usually not the same person as the crisis response leader. Any organization vulnerable to a high-stakes reputation threat should also have a trained media spokesperson so that if a situation does blow up, they’re prepared to respond quickly to media inquiries or explain a potentially complicated situation.  In my experience, advance preparation and formal media training are helpful, and periodic refreshers are a great idea, but there are simply some individuals who are born for this work.  There’s a skill to handling incoming questions under stress and within severe time constraints that I’m convinced is innate, not acquired.  Pro-tip: your best media spokesperson may not be your CEO.

Plan for a comeback

Sometimes crisis lemons make PR lemonade. A smart response to a negative situation can evoke public sympathy and even give a brand currency.  The celebrated example is another airline debacle―the JetBlue “Valentine’s Day massacre” of a decade ago.  JetBlue misjudged a weather emergency and was ultimately forced to ground scores of flights during an epic snowstorm. The debacle affected over 100,000 passengers and socked the airline with a blizzard of negative press. Part of its response to the meltdown was its famous Customer Bill of Rights—a coda that was covered nearly as widely as the original flight fiasco.

The Bill of Rights called for passenger compensation for a variety of departure and ground delays and – in a prescient move – also outlined reimbursement procedures for bumped passengers.  JetBlue’s response is now a Harvard Business School case study, and, according to HBS associate professor Robert Huckman, it probably came out of the crisis better off than it was before, in terms of public perception. Explains Huckman, “There are many ways for a growing company to improve; going through a crisis is not necessarily the easiest path to take, but it does force an organization to evaluate its operating processes rapidly and decide where it needs to create greater formalization or structure.”
An earlier version of this post appeared in the AMA Executive Circle blog.

Top PR Picks For Summer Reads

When choosing top summer books with public relations interest, our first “KPI” (key performance indicator) is anything that is well-written. Writing is the backbone of all good PR, and the best way to become a better writer is to read great stuff. After that, the criteria looks like this: books that touch on PR and marketing; books that reflect something in the current zeitgeist – politics, media, pop culture, e.g. and finally, just great reads. It’s nearly summer, after all. With that in mind, here’s an informal list of books to keep you current, smart and capable of small talk with just about anyone.

Business & Pleasure: The Latest and Greatest Reads for PR Pros

The Trouble with Reality

Let’s start with this hot-off-the-presses treatise on the state of news media since the election written by co-host of NPR’s “On the Media,” Brooke Gladstone. The book provides intelligent, insightful reflections on current political and media culture. It focuses on how and why we got to such a paradoxical and divided place in our great American democracy and press. Seen through a lens that includes cultural icons, from Jonathan Swift to Jefferson to Seinfeld, it may help readers process the election and the current administration and help PR pros better understand how the media processes these phenomena and more.

Chief Crisis Officer 

Anyone in PR today knows that the odds of their company becoming embroiled in a crisis, large or small, have increased. Whether it’s your brand ambassador spouting off offensively on social media or your airline behaving very, very badly to customers, knowing how to mitigate and repair has never been more important. This serious tome by  attorney, writer and consultant James Haggerty, Chief Crisis Officer: Running Point in the Face of Unexpected Events explains why every company and organization needs to identify a Chief Crisis Officer, who will take the lead in preparing the organization for crisis communications response, and responding effectively when the inevitable crisis hits.

Content Inc.

Summer in public relations is a great time up your content game. Content Inc., while not brand new is a terrific resource for how to successfully build and leverage content. Instructional without being preachy, the book encourages entrepreneurs and all businesspeople to identify the intersection of skill and passion (your “sweet spot”), target a narrowly defined audience that will find your content indispensable, and then hit on a”tilt”–that content hole that no one else online is filling.

Theft by Finding

 OK, you’ve worked hard enough, take a break for some pleasure reading with the master of quirky autobiographical tales, David Sedaris. His latest adventures span 25 years of diary entries that are full of grace, hilarity and pointed observations about everything from soap opera addictions, odd jobs, food, spider feeding, family kookiness and language lessons. You know you are reading great, bouyant writing when an essay on eating at the same Bob’s Big Boy as David Lynch qualifies as a page-turner. And through it all, Sedaris retains a prickly Southern wit that sparkles. And, don’t we all want someone to comment on our witty writing at some point?

Shake it Up 

This anthology of music criticism sub-titled Great American Writing on Rock and Pop From Elvis to Jay Z, is more than its cover blurb: a collection of 50 pieces by 50 writers covering, more or less, the first 50 years of American rock and pop writing. It offers solid examples of how to compose some of culture’s most difficult and demanding writing – literary criticism. A writing teacher of mine used to say if you could write a great review you could write anything. The genre demands creative language and of course, critical thinking to propel a simple review beyond superlatives, to constructive and compelling prose. Read the works in Shake it Up first for pleasure and then for instruction.

The Chickenshit Club: Why The Justice Department Fails To Prosecute Executives  

If your blood boils every time you think about “too big to fail” bankers who went unpunished or criminally inclined CEOs who walk away with wristslaps and bonuses, this is the book for you. Inspired by a James Comey quote, the book looks at the failings of today’s Justice Department. Beginning in the 1970s it chronicles the department from the inside. It touches on how, in Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Jesse Eisenger’s opinion, the organization has grown soft and fearful of taking on corporate greed and malfeasance in the modern era. Couldn’t be more timely.

The Sleepwalker

Finally, a spooky thriller that you, the reader can turn into the [inevitable] movie in your head. But enjoy it on its own merit as a dark, Hitchcockian whodunit that combines sex, sleep and murder in an utterly contemporary story that will hold its own against thrillers of summers past. With all the current obsession on the importance of a good night’s sleep, there is even some fascinating up-to-date sleep science thrown in. But don’t worry, it takes nothing away from the good, twisty ending and satisfying, though creepy plot and characters.

And, because these books have already been adapted for the screen, or soon will be, and you don’t want to be left out of any scintillating conversation – see what all the fuss is about: The Handmaid’s Tale sure it’s fiction, set in some future dystopian USA, but is it? Author Margaret Atwood claims that all of the atrocities in both the book and excellent streaming series, have occurred somewhere at some time, making it more of a horror story than any Stephen King. But King has a book about to be a film that is noteworthy as well. The Dark Tower series is a fantasy set in an amazing creative universe which is billed as King’s opus. And finally, consider reading or rereading the terrific classic, My Cousin Rachel, about to be a film. It incorporates romance, mystery and complex relationships in typical Daphne DuMaurier style.
Happy reading.

Avoid These Five Costly PR Agency Mistakes

Congratulations, you’ve retained a new public relations firm, and you’re getting ready to kick off a successful partnership. Like any new relationship, this one is in the honeymoon phase as everyone gets to know each other. But things are about to get real, so all parties need to be on their toes to ensure success from this point.

Get both teams to work together to set and achieve goals

In order to enable the most successful partnership there are some pitfalls to avoid.

Fuzzy goals

Transitioning from the PR proposal to the working plan often includes a review of goals and objectives. While the initial goal for a company may have been to “support sales of x,” once the two teams strategize, additional goals may emerge. Maybe specific product attributes are key to driving sales, or perhaps there are new audiences, like stakeholders or funders, to consider. Agreement on realistic goals will help manage expectations and keep everyone’s eye on the ball. Also key is goal-setting with specificity.  It’s better to go for “20% increase in website visits” backed by distinct strategies and tactics, than the more general “increase web traffic.” Most critical is securing mutual agreement on achievable PR goals against which the brand and team can create programming, and to put them in writing. Written agreement at every juncture of a PR engagement can head off any number of potential issues. At that time, it’s also incumbent upon the team to set KPIs for the planned initiatives and establish measurement tools.

An unrealistic budget

Start-ups and even more established companies often find themselves grappling with how to set a realistic PR budget. Some experts recommend using a formula based on a percentage of gross revenue.  New companies might set aside 12 to 20 percent of gross or projected revenue for marketing, from which a portion would be allocated to public relations. For companies that have been in business more than five years, the allocation might be between 6 and 12 percent of revenue. While these formulas offer a good rule of thumb, in our experience a PR budget is often whatever a company can afford. Our best partnerships are sometimes a compromise between what we as agency professionals want to assure excellent outcomes, and what a company can comfortably allocate. Whatever the figure i,s however, we advise clients to understand all facets of a typical budget – the agency time, anticipated out-of-pocket charges, and the duration of the engagement. Funding a healthy PR budget that satisfies both sides is key to a successful partnership.

Failure to staff properly

This caution applies equally to the PR agency team and the brand. On the agency side, we look to create a team with the right proportion of high-level strategists to direct account activities and other staffers to help implement initiatives. We may also include a dedicated writer if the account is heavy on thought leadership and content creation. On the brand side we look for one direct report for important decisions and troubleshooting rather than multiple “deciders,” which can cause confusion or even slow progress. As with other business partnerships, management by committee is rarely successful.

Letting small problems blossom into big trouble

“Hiccups”can come in the form of program delays, conflicting workstyles, or unmet expectations about “small” things that aren’t actually small. Team leaders on the agency side should keep in mind that many people are reluctant to find fault with people, and that we all dislike confrontation. If a client complains about a team member being late for meetings, that can be handled quickly. But, if the lateness is a sign of lack of engagement, or, worse, the client feels that things aren’t clicking, it’s a huge red flag. Some of us have learned the hard way that when a client voices concern, immediate and tangible change must follow, even if that means a team member is replaced.  To prevent a small problem that escalates into a relationship-threatening crisis, we urge our partners to share any concerns as early as possible. Of course, a formal account review process is designed to catch these kinds of issues, but if the review is yearly or even semi-annual, it may be too late.

“Failure to communicate”

Most of the above advice can be summed up with this simple principle – “communication is key.” Almost any misstep can be avoided by communicating early and often. To keep those lines open, we offer many opportunities when we start a PR partnership, including scheduled interactions like weekly status calls and monthly meetings, as well as spontaneous check-ins. Ideally, we on the agency side will “over-communicate” so no one is ever in the dark about our work. And, though it may seem stilted in today’s casual, Slack-driven environment, recapping key decisions in writing with timely meeting reports and confirming emails is a good way to maintain a successful workflow and keep all parties on top of their commitments.

Finally, a client of mine was fond of saying, “Unless its my birthday, don’t ever surprise me,” which brings up another universal truth about client-agency relationships. No one wants to be blindsided. Strive for honesty and transparency to manage expectations, build trust, and set a healthy communications routine, and you will lay the foundation for a lasting and lucrative relationship.

The Best PR Tips For Promoting Blog Posts

Public relations experts know that the majority of traffic coming to a blog post comes in the first hours and days of publication. This makes the timely promotion of your blog content critical to its success. And, according to TrackMaven, you might want to publish your post at 3 p.m. EST for the highest number of social shares on average. (Although in our experience, mileage varies widely.)

Make your blog posts work harder through linking, sharing and more

Being timely is just the tip of the promotion iceberg. There are several tools and creative ways to get your post read by the audience you’re targeting.

Start with a killer title

Like a great subject line, your post’s title has got to grab a reader and draw them in right away. Experiment with titles that do a few important things: convey what the post is about in specific terms; respect the reader’s intelligence (don’t overpromise) and have some fun with language. This means using simple, but strong words like “love,” “hate,” “best” and “worst” or a personal favorite, alliteration (“Six Steps,” “Better Bylines”). And here’s a fun fact, according to HubSpot — titles with the word “who” generated a 22% higher CTR than headlines without it. We also like to consult use BuzzSumo to see what the most shared content is for our keywords and determine any tweaks.

Experiment with different social platforms

As soon as a post is complete, make a habit of tweeting it, posting to Facebook, LinkedIn, and your other channels.  Obviously, you want to prioritize social media sites frequented by your target audience, but don’t discount the less popular platforms where you may be able to spark additional interest. Then see what the analytics show. Different posts may fare better on different platforms, and the way in which you post on a platform may matter as well. For example, although we sometimes attract more views on LinkedIn by sharing our posts via the “Write an article” function vs. “Share an update,” experts are divided on whether publishing as an article violates the duplicate content rule and adversely affects SEO. Suffice to say that each platform offers different opportunities, and it pays to experiment.

Forge relationships with other bloggers in your space

Everyone appreciates well-written, shareable content. Reach out to other bloggers in your space by commenting on posts you enjoyed and sharing them with your followers. This encourages reciprocal behavior. We advocate for a smart commenting strategy, making sure to post only if you have something legit to add.  It’s also advisable to demonstrate authority by participating in influential communities in social media, offering genuine help instead of just promoting your own posts. Ideally, you each amplify the other’s work and expose new readers to your content. And, think broadly here, reach out to competing sites and influencers, as well as social communities and forums with potential interest in your content. Check out bloggers you admire who also have podcasts or newsletters looking for content.

Use analytics as a guide for content

Steven Levitt, Co-author of Freakonomics once said “Data, I think, is one of the most powerful mechanisms for telling stories. I take a huge pile of data and I try to get it to tell stories.” This may sound counterintuitive, but we recommend a version of this approach when deciding what to tell readers in our own bi-weekly blog posts. We look at our page performance dashboard to show us which topics attracted visits, and by whom.  This way we can build on those top-performing posts, delving further into a topic or spinning out in new directions.

Rework or update your top posts periodically

Following the above, we also find success in simply updating or refreshing a post that caught fire with our readers. This works especially well with “hits and misses,” annual lists and other seasonal posts as well. A simple tweak refreshes a tried and true topic. For years we crafted Thanksgiving posts based on what PR should be thankful for but that started to seem redundant. This past year we turned our “thankful” post into a “roast” of PR “turkeys,” – mishandled communication opportunities, bad pitches, and so forth. A fun topic like this is also easy to promote given the visuals and endless plays on words. For list posts, we recommend keeping a file of applicable stories so you aren’t scrambling when it comes time to create the post. Older posts can also be repurposed when trending news makes them relevant again. It seems there can never be too many posts about bad airline PR, for example.

Advertise your post

There’s no shortage of paid opportunities to promote a company blog. Typically the spend is relatively inexpensive, so testing a paid strategy might be very accessible. Facebook Ads offers an easy interface and a Facebook Ads Manager tool to set objectives. On Twitter, consider the Promoted Tweets option, which offers the opportunity to target people based on who/what they follow and what has been shared on their profile and in their feeds. Twitter also allows you to buy tweets through services like JustRetweet. Before going down the paid route to promote your blog, we recommend thoroughly researching the options and setting a budget.

Finally, there are some quick and easy promotion techniques that should become part of your blogging strategy. If you haven’t already done so, link your signature to your blog posts. Consider e-mailing posts to a receptive audience such as frequent contacts or newsletter opt-ins. Don’t spam a bunch of reporters or new business prospects. In its research, TrackMaven also found it best to avoid publishing on Wednesdays (very competitive) or Fridays (fewer eyeballs). Yet, the site claims blog posts published on Sundays receive the highest average number of shares per post.
The benefits of blogging for driving visibility, building reputation, and conveying expertise are significant. Blogs drive traffic to websites, establish authority and help generate leads. Make the most of each post by ensuring that the right people are reading it.

6 Ways PR Builds Brand Marketing

Some say the goal of a great public relations program should be to build brand reputation, while sales and marketing actually drive sales. The reality is that the lines between PR and marketing are getting blurrier all the time. The two can and should work together –  much like brick and mortar.

A strong public relations program lays the groundwork for the marketing that comes later, conditioning prospective buyers for sales messages conveyed through paid media, email marketing, or price promotions. In turn, paid media can amplify the implied third-party endorsement that PR achieves in the form of content like product reviews, influencer posts, and feature articles.

There are many ways to use PR initiatives to add depth, color, and cohesion to the building blocks of brand identity. Here are some of the most powerful.

Generating credibility for the brand message

This is why earned media – the stories and interviews produced by PR – will always be relevant. Earned coverage offers the kind of credibility that can’t be matched by paid media like ads or “owned” content like company blog posts or creative social videos. PR and marketing will continue to overlap as marketers allot a greater share of the budget to their own branded content, but the third-party endorsement – either implied or explicit – of earned coverage is very effective. It’s even more powerful when generated coverage includes specific details or proof points that reinforce a brand proposition or identity, like a user testimonial or a behind-the-scenes feature on product development.

Creating depth of message

Some products are complicated. Looking to buy enterprise software? How about a new car? Today’s  buyers are more educated than ever, with vast informational resources at their fingertips. Look no further than a smartphone to access expert opinion, analyst reports, reviews, or social media discussions about specific brands or products. Likewise, there are companies with multilayered stories that are best told through long-form content, or explained in a narrative form typical of a business or consumer magazine feature. This is where PR excels.

Showing a brand’s humanity

A mega-brand like Amazon has many facets, from Jeff Bezos, whose long-term vision and relentless determination helped build it, to the warehouse workers whose stories offer a different side of Amazon’s growth. A successful narrative doesn’t have to be about a Bezos or a Branson, but it does usually need to involve people – customer testimonials, community impact, employee motivation. That is another benefit that PR delivers very well. In fact, employees can be both a rich source of stories and a powerful channel through which to tell them. One of our clients is a company that has landed on a few “Best Places To Work” lists, but it wanted more visibility for a key R&D unit that has been important to product development and innovation. When we were able to place a trade piece about that division (which struggled through disruption due to conflict in another country), it added color and credibility to the client’s reputation as an employer and an innovator.

Boosting message resonance

Advertising offers the benefit of repetition – we hear a tagline or brand promise often enough, and we start to believe it – or at least, remember it. “A diamond is forever” evokes the long-running DeBeers product campaign, while “Fly the Friendly Skies” is linked to United Airlines, though today it sounds ironic.
But in the digital age, such resonance is hard to achieve, given our fragmented media environment and the battle for customer attention. Most shopping trips today start with Google. So, when Google changed its algorithm to reward mentions in high-authority domains several years ago, it vaulted earned media stories to a higher level, thereby rewarding quality PR outcomes. Digital “resonance” means a brand that will move to the top of the search queue by virtue of its inclusion in content from trusted sources (like top media domains) as well as shareable content on popular social networks.

Educating prospective customers

Some of the most successful PR campaigns look to change behavior to promote the public interest, like   the wireless industry’s #itcanwait campaign against texting and driving. We represented a credit union through a strong campaign around financial wellness. It sponsors a series of Financial Learning Seminars, underwrites research about the cost of financial stress in the workplace, and raises funds for financial wellness causes. Of course the campaign promotes the brand, but it offers plenty of educational content that conditions the market for the CU’s products and services while actually helping the community in the process.

Promoting leadership

Staking out a position on a topical or important issue and offering insights or ideas can yield far-reaching brand benefits. Today, given our politicized culture, where it seems everyone is taking sides on hot-button issues, a failure to communicate values can actually harm a brand. When Starbucks’ Howard Schultz weighs in on marriage equality, or Sheryl Sandberg urges us to “lean in,” it’s more powerful than a corporate reputation campaign. It’s an example of thought leadership around a key issue relevant to many customers that has nothing to do with coffee or social networking. Yet, I’d argue that it has a strong impact on the brands attached.

Six Steps to Better PR/Media Relationships

Recently a journalist posted some basic advice for public relations people to improve media relationships. He said to “read stuff, then take it to reporters who like that stuff.”

That’s a little like Elmore Leonard advising writers to “try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Simple, yet true, and harder than it sounds.

Creating better relations between PR and journalism begins with PRs getting acquainted with the work of journalists in industries relevant to their clients. And in reporters respecting the role of PR professionals as managers of that relationship. Beyond that, there are some tactical ways for us to improve our outreach techniques to benefit clients.

Improved Media Relations Means Better Pitches

It starts with research

Call it something else if the word sounds too academic. But it pays to take the time to dig deeply into a reporter’s beat before sending a pitch they may find meaningless. This is best accomplished by reading what they write – not just posted pieces, but their social feeds and personal blog as well. It may sound creepy to hear that PR agencies keep a “dossier” on key reporters, but it’s all about knowing the territory. At the same time, we must know the story we’re pitching just as well. Bear in mind that any decent journalist will bring a degree of skepticism to even the most softball pitch. They will try the product we’re bragging about, vet the experts we’re offering (or seek their own), research the CEO’s background, and look at the company’s social media reviews. If it’s not airtight, it’s not ready to pitch.

Make sure your timing is right

Many a good story dies because journalists are human beings who won’t or can’t drop everything to make a hard deadline. Allow plenty of time to pitch anything with a seasonal hook; as many PR people know, media relations is a little like retail. Back-to-school ends in August, and holiday is put to bed by early fall. (One journalist recently reported that she received a Christmas pitch this week. Sounds premature, but who knows?) And before pitching a journalist, it’s wise to make sure he hasn’t just written a similar story in the past six months. Often clients think it’s a good idea to try to piggyback on something just published, but unless you’re bringing something truly fresh or taking the story in an unexpected direction, don’t pitch a “me-too” idea. It may be smart, however, to newsjack a hot topic by offering an example or expert commentary on a large breaking story. When the FBI announced that it was hiring technology talent to develop a type of wearable emergency alert system, we went out with a pitch about entrepreneurs who had already done just that. Our timely pitch resulted in a great Inc. Magazine story.

Pitch it short, sweet and smart

A colleague of mine with a terrific track record treats media pitches a little like tweets. He shoots for pitches no longer than 140 words. Media appreciate brevity, clarity and no wasted words, though not at the expense of sloppy writing. This goes for the subject line as well. A cardinal rule is to tailor a subject line to the writer’s beat and shoot for less than 60 characters with the key words up front – in the first three or four words. We’ve taken our cues from studies analyzing subject lines and often send other team members a test email to see if the subject line and pitch are still too wordy. Some journalists recommend dispensing with pleasantries, but that’s a judgment call. Some of my best media relationships have grown particularly friendly, so of course I’m going to ask about someone’s vacation or wish them a good weekend.

Know when to follow up or fold

The media follow-up discussion is a burning issue in public relations circles. Our rule of thumb is to follow up in a short email a couple of days after first pitching. If we don’t receive any response, we work to add something new to the original pitch and change up the subject line to reflect that. After a second round, if the silence is deafening, move on. In stories where journalists are interviewed about PR pet peeves, persistent follow-up is always highly ranked. By the same token, many journalists hate the phone and say pretty consistently, don’t call. Like many rules, however, this is not a hard and fast edict; if you sense a writer will take your calls and likes to chat, go for it. Every so often we even get calls from journalists who prefer to discuss a story the old fashioned way and that kind of contact is valuable.

Never lie

Establishing credibility and forging a good relationship with a journalist is all about trust. So, while some pitches may take license to get attention, once you’ve secured media interest, play it straight. Know who you will offer up for interviews and make sure they’re prepared. Don’t bait and switch. If you’ve quoted financials in a pitch, vet the numbers. And, if you’ve promised additional materials, images, or quotes by a certain time, make it happen. Most PR strategists would agree that you only get one strike with a contact before you’re added to their own personal “no-fly” list.

Put yourself in their shoes

Ah, the golden rule. The pool of journalists has been shrinking for the past decade. Arguably the universe of public relations professionals has not. This disparity means that journalists will always be pitched more story ideas than they could ever use. A writer friend told me that she often starts work with an in-box of 300 emails and is pretty certain that 99% of them are PR pitches. But don’t let that statistic scare you away from developing smart, on-target pitches for the right reporters. Just be painstaking when crafting each, because the same writer said that if a pitch is worthwhile, it will rise to the top.

Finally, this quote from a writer on what he likes best about his favorite PR people – what matters is: they actually speak to me like a human.

Top 10 Reasons To Work At A PR Firm

Millions of college students graduate this year, and if my inbox is any indication, many would like to work in public relations. Of course, anyone entering the field is likely to look at the different paths to a career, which typically means exploring large agencies, in-house opportunities, and smaller firms. We’d like to make the case for agency work for any aspiring PR strategist. And, of course, we think small or midsize agencies represent the most promising career path to start. Here’s why.

PR Agencies Offer Breadth of Experience

Variety

Pound-for-pound, there’s no match for the sheer variety that most agency positions will afford a newly minted college graduate with a few internships under their belt. The smaller the agency environment, the greater the variety. Most new hires will get broad exposure to the range of essential PR skills, from strategy to writing and research, to media outreach, and their work may touch several different PR sectors, from financial to fashion.

“Real-world” opportunities from day one

While some PR firms boast comprehensive intern or entry-level programs, they may be short on actual PR practice and long on busy work. At a smallish agency, someone just starting out is much more likely to put PR theory into practice from the outset. A growing independent agency thrums with new and existing account activity that provides soup-to-nuts opportunities to pitch in and a double dose of experience. Most staffers learn the business and practice of public relations while also experiencing life at a consulting services organization, which is relevant to many kinds of work.

A chance to show creative flair

We choose hires who demonstrate more than just dazzling academic prowess. You may be a good candidate if you worked in graphic arts for your sorority or wrote pitches or planned events for a non-profit. We want to see who blogs or has contributed pieces to on-campus pubs. At Crenshaw, we encourage young talent to make their own opportunities to create appealing graphics for social media sites or design a piece of content for a client or the firm. We also urge everyone – even interns – to write blog posts and try their hand at short videos for social sharing. Contemporary PR is so much more than writing press releases (though staff will eventually get to do that as well.)

Opportunities for client interaction

At Crenshaw and other firms our size, it’s common for interns or entry-level staffers to sit in on client meetings, both in-person and by Skype or conference call. While they are typically not ready to contribute actively to the conversation, the meetings are a valuable way to pick up tips on account management and soak it all in. Subtler skills, like defusing a difficult situation or negotiating the finer points of an agreement, can also be gleaned from sitting in on client-agency meetings. And virtually everyone is welcome at a creative brainstorm, because a good idea can come from anyone.

Learn the value of teamwork

Teamwork in a PR firm encourages staff to become more familiar with one another and learn how to work together. As part of the group, young employees learn how to cooperate, delegate and support each other. A team project fosters give and take, building on an idea to improve it or learning to take constructive criticism if warranted. Teamwork teaches effective deadline-setting and organizational skills. Socially, being part of a team encourages new hires to get along with those at all levels of the company. If they’re in a smaller firm, this opportunity may also mean more face time with leadership, which is a real plus.

Build industry tech acumen

Many who come to work at Crenshaw or other agencies do so with digital skills, and at an agency like ours, they have the chance to learn other software programs if they don’t already know them – like Cision for media monitoring and list-building; WordPress for content creation; email marketing or marketing automation software; and survey tools. Because PR is increasingly data-driven, it’s especially key to master tech tools such as those that analyze results of client programs and media coverage.  We’re always on the lookout for new tech, as we’ve discussed previously and encourage staff to bring us the latest and greatest examples.

Grow verbal communications skills

It can be argued that today’s grads haven’t been as exposed as previous generations to the finer points of phone etiquette, meeting protocol, or even simple face-to-face networking skills. Spending time on the agency side offers interns opportunities to “talk to strangers” and learn to interact in different situations, from Skype meetings to presenting in front of a group – in person! Although some millennials may consider making a call to be “inefficient,” working in PR, or really, any services firm, means dealing with different types of people and sharpening those verbal and presentation skills.

Use social media savvy

“You mean I can spend time on Instagram and get paid?” Well, yes. Creating effective social media campaigns is a growing part of most PR work. With 90 percent of young adults—ages 18 to 29—using social media daily, it’s natural to tap them to support social efforts. We especially like to brainstorm ideas for Snapchat videos, hashtag campaigns, Facebook Live events and other initiatives with bright young talent. It will still fall to a seasoned PR pro to develop strategy for an effective brand campaign, but new and different executions are always welcome.

Never be bored

The biggest difference between working in-house on a PR team and working in an agency is the range of assignments, as noted. When acting as in-house PR for a non-profit or corporation, much of the work can be repetitive, and it becomes a challenge to find different ways to drum up enthusiasm for the same topic. At an agency with an eclectic client mix, those starting out can find themselves working on adtech one day, wearable devices or even not-for-profit work the next. This variety stimulates creativity, and it encourages interest and development of expertise on any number of topics. The personal satisfaction gained by increasing knowledge in several areas is invaluable, and it will make a candidate more attractive on the job market as well.

Find your path

While our experience shows that working in an agency is a great way to start in public relations, the variety factor also makes it a strong path for determining a more permanent direction within PR or communications. Some choose to stay in the agency world, perhaps honing a specialty like B2B tech or health and wellness communications, while others make that switch to the client side because they’ve found their true passion and want to work on the inside. Still others make the move from a small agency to a corporate giant to take on multinational accounts. That’s the beauty of beginning at the smaller firm. The experience offers a glimpse at the many ways a PR career can go.

Making The Most Of A Hashtag Strategy

Nearly every public relations campaign can benefit from smart use of hashtags, those words that start with the symbol # and make social content more searchable by topic. Marketers know that hashtags help spark brand conversations, expand content reach, engage a target audience and improve search and SEO.

Building Better Hashtags

Hashtags work best when marketers think of them as boosters and enhancements, not as a replacement for quality content. Brands should also use them judiciously and with words and images that make sense. Avoid tagging every word or phrases that are hard to read or unintentionally awkward like this, our favorite fail from online database of talent reps, Who Represents. You can see how the social media version #whorepresents could be misconstrued. But enough about the misses, here are some ways to make your hashtags a hit.

Define goals. Using your marketing and PR plan as a guide, set social media goals to align. What are you looking to accomplish? Increase website visits? Drive social interaction with customers? Promote an event? This exercise will help the team settle on messaging, images and timing of components for hashtag usage.

Keep it simple. Like most of what works best on social media, an authentic hashtag strategy that is true to a brand is more effective than one trumped up for attention, or that rides the coattails of an existing trending topic. Naturals include the ubiquitous Nike #JustDoIt or Coca-Cola’s #ShareaCoke. They work because they simply reinforce what we already know about a brand. But the best hashtags take that authenticity a step further with a call to action. That’s why we love  #PutACanOnIt from Red Bull. Inspired by a fan photo of a Red Bull can atop a Mini Cooper, the hashtag campaign created branded Mini Coopers while encouraging Red Bull drinkers to come up with their own unique takes on the photo. The simple concept caught on and was considered one of the most successful Twitter campaigns to date.

Do some hashtag research. It may seem simple enough to match a hashtag to a company initiative or call to action, but the last thing you want to do is assume your chosen word or phrase is unique and hasn’t already been used. Try using a hashtag research tool, such as TWUBS, What the Trend, or Trendsmap, to see what already exists and if they are trending(or have trended. There’s much to learn here, most importantly, why a particular hashtag is trending. This will avoid the embarrassment that can come with using a hashtag that is overused, aligns your brand with something negative or is just plain wrong. The use of #MLK Day with Martin Luther King’s “We shall overcome” to celebrate the Seattle Seahawks Superbowl bid is a good example of a hashtag gone wrong. The public reacted swiftly and the team did as well, apologizing and removing the tweet.

Choose “sticky” hashtags. Apparently, the most popular hashtag in use is #FF, short for “follow Friday,” with 539 million mentions. But last month’s #NuggsforCarter – one student’s attempt to secure free Wendy’s chicken nuggets for life – may be gaining on #FF. While neither of those hashtags were chosen by brands, Wendy’s is certainly happy with the attention “Nuggs” has brought to its brand. By using it in their own social media, they’ve seen the Twitter retweets swell to over three million. Here’s some basic advice for choosing hashtags with staying power. Try to be unique and precise. The more vague and commonplace your terms, the less distinguishable (and shareable) your hashtag. Get creative and remember everyone adores alliteration  (see what we did there), hence the popularity of #MeatlessMonday and #ThrowbackThursday. And make timing work for you, as organizers behind this year’s #womensmarch found when online chatter using the tag and others similar to it began well ahead of the event.

Know your platforms. The hashtag was born on Twitter and it has become the primary source of news for individuals and media alike.  Research shows that tweets with hashtags have twice the engagement and one or two hashtags further increases. But stop there, because increasing to three actually decreases interest. Instagram, on the other hand, works in the opposite way – the more hashtags, the better. Facebook experts claim that its posts perform best with no hashtags at all. These are guidelines; it’s best to dig into each site and see what works for you.

Integrate brand hashtags into PR efforts. Ideally, a team can make a hashtag work harder by leveraging it in PR efforts. We’ve seen this done successfully in campaigns that move seamlessly from social media to traditional media. #Movember is a great example of this migration. The Movember Foundation was started to bring attention to men’s health issues, but arguably didn’t take off until the organization mobilized mustache-growing as part of its awareness campaign. The great images of men sporting ‘staches in November lent itself to the brilliant hashtag campaign which is a media favorite every year. 

Measure results.  We look for ways to measure results of a hashtag strategy much the way we do PR outcomes – using a variety of metrics, including general buzz, engagement, sentiment and potential reach. Although a recent study by Meltwater concluded that 76% of PR firms use no paid media monitoring or analytics tools at all, there are several good ones, including Talkwalker and Hashtagify, which just posted its top list of #Mother’sDay hashtags. Just in time to decide how best to leverage some of them for your brand.

Should Public Relations Change Its Name?

A few years ago I dropped in on a client’s booth at an industry conference, and the company CEO introduced me – the founder of his company’s public relations agency – as the “publicist.”

Who, me, a publicist? Of course, he meant no disrespect, and I didn’t take offense. But for some PR people, the term is faintly pejorative. It implies a kind of “smile-and-dial” media pitch person, or a celebrity’s press agent. Neither would describe my role.

I thought of that incident as an age-old industry discussion about PR’s branding – and its associations – was recently revived. As the practice of public relations has changed over the decades, so has its name – morphing from “publicity” and “press office” in the 1920s to broader and more inclusive terms like “public relations,” “public affairs” and “corporate communications.”

The changes aren’t just semantical. Each offers its own nuances, with “public affairs” implying government relations or legislative goals and “corporate communications” referring to all internal and external communications activities as a management function.

PR is thriving, but what about “public relations” — as a name? Only 27% of agency leaders believe that it will “clearly and adequately” describe what we do by the year 2020, according to a survey of more than 1,000 senior public relations executives by the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations and the Holmes Report. And there are some compelling reasons for PR professionals to say so.

Public relations is outdated – as a name

Many of today’s PR agencies are staffed with digital experts and data engineers as well as ex-journalists and publicists. As social and digital channels have come to dominate our media landscape, budgets have shifted accordingly. PR firms naturally want a piece of the pie. Our work has also become more consultative, or, at least, we’re pushing it in that direction because an agency role that is broader, more advice-based and more meaningful to the client C-level is both professionally satisfying and reasonably lucrative.

Then there’s traditional PR’s scaleability.  The art of media relations, the subset of PR initiatives that focuses on journalist outreach and the generation of earned media coverage, is in many ways exquisitely inefficient. Success takes research skills, media savvy, a certain killer instinct, and a network of one-to-one relationships, and the process often involves a time-consuming negotiation. It’s tough to ramp up and expect a commensurate level of productivity like, say, SEO or programmatic advertising, so we look to add complementary services.

Finally, there’s that small matter of professional pride. To some in our business, PR is shorthand for publicity or “press relations” – emblematic of the most commoditized part of the industry, and one that is pretty reductive or even negative. That’s what I was feeling when the client CEO introduced me, although he didn’t mean to give offense. But for some of us, “publicist” is just one degree of separation from “spinmeister” or “flack.” It’s all part of PR’s mixed reputation. When a company initiative is described as a “PR move,” it’s usually not positive.

Yet relationships are still key

But I, for one, doubt we’ll be able to do better than our current industry label, and I’m not sure we should try. The key word is “relations.” PR is about generating influence, which often comes with the imprimatur of a trusted third party, like a respected news outlet or an acknowledged expert. The confidence that third parties inspire is more important than ever in the era of fake news. And as communicators, we’re increasingly asked not just to generate coverage for our clients, but to build the relationships with third parties that actually influence behavior. And PR is, after all, about relationships – with an organization’s employees, stakeholders, customers, regulators, and more.

Ken Makovsky makes that argument in a recent post by pointing out one of the core skills of a PR professional, which is “not just about broadcasting messages out into the market, but monitoring and adjusting to the attitudes, opinions, and actions of diverse groups of audiences who are very empowered by technology.” He specifies the recent and highly publicized missteps by major brands, from Uber to United, which have been well covered in our own blog and elsewhere. And as Paul Holmes of The Holmes Report pointed out in a post five years ago that still holds up, “This is an age in which organizations need to focus on building strong, authentic, mutually beneficial relations between themselves and the public.”

That will not change. We’d do well as an industry to focus not on what we call ourselves, but in how we position, sell and execute for clients.

PR is dead. Long live public relations.

PR Secrets For Scoring Great Media Coverage

When it comes to good public relations, a company can have great potential that for one reason or another is never realized in the form of media coverage. There can be a number of reasons, including bad timing, a poor approach, or competition in the space. But it’s often simply because the company is unprepared for the opportunity. This is why we always want to make sure that a prospective client is truly ready to work with a PR agency, knowing that part of securing media coverage is a willingness to prepare in advance.  But that’s just the beginning.

Prepping for Press

Define your message

Beyond generating brand visibility, what do you want your PR coverage to communicate? A brand’s top messages are typically the basis for its narrative, and it can take time and skill to shape and convey those attributes in the right way. It’s one of the first tasks of a good PR team and it usually factors into evaluation of a program’s success. This very fun story about KFC launching a romance novel for moms this Mother’s Day incorporates many of what we assume are the product messages, including “…deliciousness of Extra Crispy Chicken.” In fact the entire romance novel, “Tender Wings of Desire” is an ode to KFC product attributes, as well as being a PR win-win.

Tell us everything

Not literally, but there’s almost no such thing as oversharing when it comes to informing and educating your PR team. One thing that makes for an excellent PR partnership is the organization’s willingness to share raw information that can be translated into media interviews and stories. These can be internal studies, sales information, customer and competitive data, or simple workaday anecdotes. Data can be a goldmine for a PR team looking for a fresh media angle, and sometimes an offhand remark can result in a story. File-sharing service WeTransfer mentioned to our team that an artist whose work was featured on their site would be designing a billboard for the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles. The comment sparked some quick media outreach resulting in a number of positive mentions highlighting WeTransfer and including a link. It was a no-brainer.

Offer “exclusive” data if possible

Particularly during quiet periods without new product and other announcements, a bit of “sexy” data can go a long way to securing a story. For example, a hot topic of late in the ad/tech world is the ire of major advertisers placed next to hate speech on YouTube and other sites. MediaRadar, which tracks advertising across the web, unearthed data showing that YouTube had lost 5% of its advertisers in the wake of the discovery.  In stories like this one in the NY Post, Crenshaw was able to reinforce MediaRadar’s position as an indispensable source of intelligence for ad sales.

Prep your media spokesperson

Whether seizing a media moment or rolling out a coordinated effort, those who speak on the company’s behalf need to be fluent and comfortable conversing with press. On occasion a CEO is born to the role and requires very little preparation, but that’s the exception. Most leaders can benefit from at least a quick professional media training session to polish the rough edges and instill confidence. Failing to do so can result in stories that fall short on key messages, leave your brand out altogether or produce an embarrassing interview that wastes the time and work put into it.

Take some chances

Sometimes what separates a good PR relationship from a great one is a high level of trust. When a creative PR team suggests something out of the company comfort zone and makes a strong case for its success based on previous experience and research, it’s worth listening. Some of the best company stories involve a little benign risk-taking. This is not to endorse putting anyone in an awkward position, but the one who goes out on a limb with a bold prediction or contrarian critique wins the day in the court of public opinion. Elon Musk is putting resources into underground tunnels which he predicts can solve LA’s traffic woes – is he onto something? Does it matter? Look at the coverage!

Timing, timing, timing

Sometimes the timing is obvious – see Mother’s Day and the KFC bodice-ripper story above – or any number of reliable seasonal stories brands regularly use. In addition to calendarizing story angles to stay on top of these opportunities, it’s a good idea to stay on top of daily (or hourly) headlines and “newsjack” when appropriate. As soon as the new administration began talking about making some less-than-positive changes to current tax law, not-for-profit builder, NHP Foundation positioned its CEO to talk up the benefits of an existing tax credit program that has helped keep housing affordable for generations. It’s now standard operating procedure for him to work in mentions of the tax credit in media interviews like this one with Politico, keeping the issue top-of-mind, as talk of potential changes permeates the news.

Remember that media begets media

If a big story hits, don’t sit back and think the job is done. One story naturally leads to another, particularly if the PR team has been clever enough to hold back fresh news tidbits in anticipation of helping a story have “legs.” Broadcast typically follows print and digital coverage, so if you score a big story that appears online, there may be an opportunity for a television interview based on the same news. Certainly if a story is stirring interest, it’s a good idea to be ready for follow-up interviews. This could be that 15 minutes of fame you have been preparing for all these years and you want to be positioned to make the most of it.