Best PR Tips For Media Interviews

Nothing in public relations is quite as rewarding as securing an important interview for a client. But when it happens, that’s not the time to relax; in fact, it’s when the work escalates. For some, this can mean an intense media training session. For others, a simple review of the interviewer’s background and expectations are all that’s necessary.

How to prepare for a media interview

We can’t all represent stars like Jeff Bezos. But we can help generate opportunities that serve them and their businesses well. Here are some tips we’ve gleaned from PR strategists and others.

Always accompany clients to interviews

Anna Mariotti, Public Information Coordinator at WSP USA, stresses the importance of clients’ having a media liaison or PR person sit in on the interview. “It adds a layer of accountability and an extra set of ears.  A PR rep can speak up in a conversational manner if necessary to clarify any statements made by the interviewee that may be vague, unclear, or open to interpretation.” We agree. And when accompanying a senior client executive to a key journalist interview, we inevitably learn something.

Make judicious use of personal anecdotes and data

Most PR people agree that the inclusion of relevant data in an interview is as important as the peppering in of personal anecdotes. Today’s audiences are looking for authentic, emotionally-connecting stories that are backed up by newsworthy data, big and small. Our client Jim Curtis, President of Remedy Health Media, tells reporters about how patients with various conditions benefit from the emotional storytelling on his company’s site. These personal stories serve as an entree to the broader business success story. Readership and advertiser stats support the emotional narrative and make Remedy Health a site for potential business and advertising partners to notice.

Demonstrate thought leadership

Today’s executives must come across as industry experts. It’s important to reference trends and current world events that may impact your business. Presumably your client has already penned articles or given  speeches, making access to good information a natural move. Be prepared with several interesting or unexpected nuggets of information and, where possible, offer a compelling insight or unique angle. We also recommend making the interview a conversation; feel free to ask the reporter a thought-provoking question. Any executive sitting for an interview needs to be able to provide more than just what’s happening in his company. Top interviewees should be fluent in what’s happening in the industry and how it relates to any number of newsworthy topics.

Don’t forget to have a sense of humor

This tip actually came from a former client who liked to joke a bit with a journalist before starting an interview. Even if the subject matter was serious, he found that breaking the ice with a little humor helped put both parties at ease and actually made for a more productive session. Former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, a stand-up comic in a previous life, was famous for putting even the toughest audience at ease with humor. While the CEO you work for may not be that comedic, and you can’t force it, interviewees can usually inject innocuous humor into interview situations.  But, as a cautionary note, don’t ever get too comfortable with the interviewer. Remember that they are there to do a job, not to be your buddy.

Remember the power of “I’ll have to get back to you”

In our media prep sessions, we advise spokespeople to embrace the fact that they may not have all the answers at their fingertips. There’s no shame in saying, “I don’t know off the top of my head, but I’ll get back to you.” This is in no way meant to avoid or stonewall. It’s totally legitimate to want to provide the most accurate response and beats taking a guess – and having to correct an error after the interview has run. Following up with a reporter also provides another opportunity for positive – hopefully memorable – interaction, which could lead to other interviews in the future.

Record interviews when you can to review and learn from

Reviewing taped provides an opportunity to critique and incorporate learnings for future media encounters. We recommend looking at how the interviewee does the following:

  • Takes control of the interview
  • Delivers the key messages
  • Incorporates appropriate body language
  • Speaks articulately and naturally (and not too fast or slow)
  • Maintains credibility

We also look at how one takes command of each of the typical interview scenarios including “hardball” (a confrontational or negative agenda or reporter known for “off-script” questions), “softball” (more general, often with room for lengthy responses and ability for interviewee to direct the conversation) or “unprepared” (a rambling or disorganized interviewer.)

Keep social media top-of-mind

Finally, veteran crisis PR strategist Susan Tellem cautions against any executive agreeing to an interview that rises from something negative on social media – a misbegotten tweet or comment taken out of context. “It’s imperative to have a spokesperson fluent in social media,” she warns. It’s also important to ensure you have dedicated resources monitoring and preparing to respond and comment if necessary. She adds that if you don’t feel confident that your spokesperson can handle the conversation, then “get another spokesperson who can.” Given the times we live in today, that sounds about right.

What Sean Spicer Can Teach Us About PR

Sean Spicer just might be the most famous public relations person in the country, but it’s not from leading by example – unless walking away from the world’s worst communications job counts. In a clever but dubious bit of newsjacking, the owner of the Bunny Ranch brothel offered Spicer a PR job at his company. I’m sure Spicer will have better career options (though CNN commentator is out for now), but the Bunny Ranch stunt seems to put a final flourish on the running joke that had defined him as @PressSec. (It also reminded me of the most ignominious image of Spicer before his press secretary stint, which now seems pretty benign.)

White House Press Secretary isn’t an ordinary job, and as time goes on, Spicer’s reputation will probably rebound. But a look at his missteps offers some insights to even more “traditional” PRs.

Know your audience

A good PR person is focused on building relationships with influential media, who in turn reach actual consumers, or in this case, voters. Sometimes we even develop “personas” for key audiences, which in the case of the White House, should be key members of Congress and specific voter demographic segments. But Spicer’s press briefings had an audience of one in mind – the President himself – and he never really succeeded in pleasing Trump, despite repeated attempts. He would have done better – and retained his reputation – by focusing on the media audience in front of him, though it’s possible his tenure would have been even shorter. It was likely a no-win situation.

Keep your credibility

It’s impossible to do the job if you can’t balance the needs of the client with those of the media and publics being served.  The White House press corps is a tough and unruly bunch under the best of circumstances, so it’s unlikely any PressSec is beloved by them. But Spicer lost his credibility at his very first briefing – by pinning his performance on the lie that the 2017 inauguration audience was the biggest ever. Of course, he was doing it to please his boss, but a better strategy might have been to challenge media skepticism – and their underlying attitudes – rather than argue facts. If the facts aren’t on your side, you need to change the conversation instead of doubling down.

Don’t demonize opponents

This advice comes from former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry, and it’s wise, though clearly difficult for an administration that feels besieged. But a consistently antagonistic posture distracts from the actual issues at hand. When it comes to major legislation, for example, the role of the White House should be to help persuade the electorate as well as our representatives. A polarized session may make for good entertainment, but ratings don’t necessarily equal votes for the next piece of lawmaking.

Use humor

Spicer tried a few times, but the press corps was rarely receptive, and his utter self-consciousness overwhelmed him to the point where was was stiff and unnatural when he tried to crack a joke.  We found out only last week that the real reason televised briefings were suspended for a time was that Spicer was desperately trying to shield himself from Trump’s scrutiny, which extended to his physical appearance. It’s tough to be relaxed or funny when you’re under constant pressure. Incoming Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci is likely to do much better on that score, although it’s unclear if he’ll be presiding over briefings.

Give the news, don’t be the news

Spicer couldn’t prevent Melissa McCarthy and SNL from creating a hilarious impersonation of him at the podium that arguably made more headlines than the president. But his angry and bombastic demeanor (Vanity Fair called it, “Part Trump, Part Sam Kinison”) enabled it. Spicer was a comedy sketch waiting to happen. He was often tongue-tied, which is a real handicap for anyone whose job is on live TV. But his tendency to dig himself in deeper when he made a mistake was truly unnecessary, and on a couple of occasions it dominated several news cycles.

Admit mistakes

This one was my biggest concern about Spicer as a PR professional, because it was so avoidable. The most memorable gaffe was when, in referring to Syria president Bashar al-Assad, he confidently asserted that even Adolf Hitler “didn’t sink to of using chemical weapons.” When reminded that Hitler sent millions to their deaths in gas chambers, he doubled down, clinging to technicalities and calling concentration camps “holocaust centers.” Spicer didn’t apologize until the following day, after apparently speaking with megadonor Sheldon Adelson. How much easier would it have been so have simply said, on the spot, “I’m sorry, that was a terrible  analogy. Next question?”

 

Better PR With Third-Party Partnerships

A third-party partnership is a staple of the public relations repertoire at many successful agencies. Opportunities expand when smart agency teams find ways to shape a multi-dimensional partnership where each side succeeds.

Smart PR partnerships expand opportunities

Make sure your messages are aligned

The best PR partnerships are borne of positions or values that are similar or consistent. For example, Edible Arrangements, providers of healthy fresh fruit snacks, sought to partner with a nutrition organization to build awareness of the “healthy” aspect of its brand positioning. We brokered an arrangement between the company and the Society for Education Nutrition Education and Behavior. The SNEB works with schools and is dedicated to promoting effective nutrition education and healthy behavior. Our program focused on school celebrations like Halloween and birthdays to offer healthful alternatives to candy and sweets. We worked closely with SNEB leaders to make sure our messaging about healthy snacks for children hewed as closely to theirs as possible. We even helped the client create a special product just for school celebrations that the SNEB could get behind. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Share and share alike

Where possible, work with clients to offer opportunities for shared exposure with other category players. One way we do that at Crenshaw is through thought leadership panels that sometimes include competitors discussing and debating topics of interest to the industry. One panel we convened — for online art site UGallery, for example — even included its own competitors, which ordinarily a no-no, but in this case helpful for UGallery to be compared to larger companies in the space. Most recently, on behalf of interactive content developer Arkadium, we arranged a panel discussing tech in the newsroom. Our partners for the event included publishing brands Gannett and the New York Daily News, sharing a stage and resulting positive press.

Be fearless in dreaming up potential partnerships

The brilliant PR person for Scotch-Brite lint rollers who dreamed up the idea of a pop-up lounge for the “Dogs of Instagram” had vision, and then some. When was the last time the NY Times provided such brand-heavy coverage? Not in a dog’s age! But what makes this influencer partnership so fun is the sight of the most mundane product we can think of – a lint roller –  featured in such a way. The sheer pleasure of seeing adorably photogenic pups decked out in Scotch-Brite logo-wear frolicking on Scotch-Brite upholstered sofas is joyful, low-concept and perfect.

Treat partner companies as clients

PR agencies should treat ancillary relationships with any companies as potential clients. This is just smart business since you never know where your next client will come from.  But it’s also valid advice when designing a program to benefit your client as well as the strategic partner. Gain an understanding of their PR goals, corporate culture, media dealings and leadership sensitivities to help you create a plan that not only benefits both parties, but offers a sense of smart stewardship on your part. In our promotion of Small Town Breweries’ “Not Your Father’s Root Beer,” we helped foster a partnership with a regional ice cream brand, Graeter’s. Our team worked closely with the Graeter’s PR group to ensure equal billing for the two in press materials, product deliveries and media coverage.

Feature celebrities in meaningful ways

As long as your client has the resources, partnering with a celebrity can be a pretty effective way to garner positive press. It’s never a guarantee, as we’ve seen with the Pepsi/Kendall Jenner misfire. But, done well, a celebrity partnership can be more than a pretty face and a product. We particularly like Visine’s promotion featuring Hillary Duff. It’s smart, targeted and just makes good sense. Visine enlisted a popular TV star with a young following to talk up the benefits of Visine when binge-watching your favorite shows. But it doesn’t stop there; the program Visine developed to help people binge watch more comfortably has a great CSR component as well. For each #ScreenOn hashtag used on Twitter, Visine donates a dollar to AdoptAClassroom.org to provide classrooms with educational technology. Using Duff, the demographics are right, the campaign is buzzworthy and the product delivers. That’s a true PR vision come to life.

Evaluate PR partnerships

As with any PR program, measuring success against predetermined KPIs is the way to determine effectiveness and ROI. Both are critical when considering future programming. A good first step is to work with your partners to establish the KPIs. For instance, in a media relations-focused campaign, readership quantity and quality; sentiment; and share-of-voice might all be considered important indicators of success. Other success metrics might include anticipated media coverage (number of placements, type of outlets, geographical reach) as well as estimates on the percentage of stories featuring one or more key messages and the expected tone. When well executed, a third-party partnership incorporating the tips above should be able to meet and exceed goals.

5 Ways To Create Powerful PR Content

In public relations we’re always looking for ways to help produce quality content for clients as well as our own brand. And there are useful tools that can save time while improving topic choice, leads, and writing style. Here are some of our favorite apps and tools that help PR teams create winning blog posts, bylines and other important communications.

Save time and talent with PR tech tools

Improve the quality of your writing. 

Let’s start at the beginning. Good content is based on good writing. Conventional wisdom says we should all read and write more to improve skills. But to refine your writing further and save time, try editing tools designed to make your writing more readable. We like Hemingway. It offers countless features that are really helpful, like calling out complex words or phrases, extra-long sentences, too many adverbs and overuse of the passive voice. It will proofread for you, too. All a writer has to do is paste in something they’re working on and edit away. Focus Writer and Quoll are other good sources to help improve basic writing.

Increase your content output.  

In other words, Write or Die. That’s the name of a somewhat maniacal writing app that will push you to complete writing assignments, help with a particularly bad case of writer’s block or just teach some serious discipline. Most PR people will shudder at its punitive features, like threatening to delete your saved material if you don’t make a deadline! But there is a kind of “beat the clock” thrill about using it that can help slow writers or procrastinators make real leaps in productivity. Of course, quantity is nothing without maintaining quality. If this is too Draconian, you can go old school with a timer to nudge up your daily writing output.

Come up with fresh content ideas.

One of the challenges PR people face daily is coming up with new or original ideas for story pitches, blog posts and other content. And there isn’t always time to pull in collaborators. Don’t stare too long at that blank screen; bring in reinforcements like IdeaFlip, a brainstorming tool for content writing. Or check out blog topic generators from HubSpot or Portent. Also helpful? Sites like Trendspottr to get ahead of the curve on any number of topics and spur creative and buzzworthy writing. And don’t forget Google; new news feed is a boon for PR team. Expanding on what the mighty search engine already does, the enhanced “information feed” is more news-oriented and advanced in its use of machine learning and AI to intuit and reflect your interests. It will offer up news and content based on what you’re already searching for using Google, which can save time. It’s a little like having access to endless Google Alerts without having to set them.

Illustrate your posts like a pro.

Want your audience to sit up and take notice of your posts and articles? Add images and graphic touches to augment your brilliant content. Take a look at sites like BeFunky which turns your titles into works of art. The Meme Generator is another fun tool that lets content creators add enhance their work with original and share-worthy memes. Need unique images that don’t scream “stock photo” and don’t cost an arm and a leg? Here’s a terrific list of free image providers.

Another easy way to take a blog post or other content to the next level is by creating an infographic with help from a site like Picktochart or Venngage. Don’t underestimate infographics – they remain a powerful way to present large amounts of information in an easy to digest way. And then there’s video; it’s undeniably the most “clickable” content online and there are some easy free video editing tools like Avidemux, known as the Instagram of video editing software for its speed, ease of use and impressive results.

Manage and scale your social sharing.

There are many tools to share content. Most PR people know about Hootsuite and other sites that can automate sharing. But have you tried Buffer? It allows creators to share content across multiple social networks with one click. Buffer also claims to help users drive more clicks and traffic and increase fan engagement. Like many web-based tools, it offers a free trial, and we’re always up for a no-cost test.

Top Tech Trends That Affect PR: Mary Meeker 2017

Last month Mary Meeker of Kleiner, Perkins, Caulfield, Byers released her Internet Trends report for 2017, and all 355 slides are well worth a read for anyone in tech public relations or digital marketing. Here are some of the most relevant trends for PR.

Internet ad spend surpasses television spend

The lines will cross in the coming months, which was inevitable, so the news is symbolic. But this threshold crossing is a sign that major advertisers can no longer give short shrift to digital ad budgets. It may feel like it’s taken forever to happen — the first digital ad was placed in 1994. But it means that the disruption of the old order is complete, and future change will be swift.

Take a look at that blue line — it’s going nowhere but up! Public relations and content creation are positioned to gain their share of a fattening digital spend as well. Of course, TV isn’t going away, it’s just going to multiple platforms and over-the-top formats. Revenue will follow.

 

Image result for internet ad spend surpasses tv meeker 2017

 

Yet ad-blocking continues to grow

Particularly on mobile devices, consumers are still using technology to block intrusive and irrelevant ads, placing pressure on digital marketers to deliver better ad messages. For public relations, ad-blocking is a mixed bag; some say it spells opportunity, but the economic harm to publishers is a far greater threat, at least in my view. It does reinforce the role and importance of engaging content. There has rarely been such an opportunity for earned media and paid to work together to create content that drives awareness, engagement, and search rankings.

Digital health is hot

Health tech is at “a digital inflection point,” according to Meeker. From connected devices that gather user data, to hospital networks, her statistics point to the explosive growth of personal and public health information. It has implications for product innovation, wellness, genomic research, and caregiver education. But most relevant of all may be the sheer amount of data available to consumers about their own health and wellness. The empowerment of the healthcare and health information consumer will be larger and more significant than ever before.

Mobile is still growing

PRs have long been aware that the content we create is increasingly consumed on mobile devices. Yet what’s interesting about Meeker’s data here is that desktop media consumption hasn’t really slowed, so mobile usage is largely additive. We’re simply always connected, apparently. It’s all digital, all the time.

Facebook and Google dominate digital advertising

Many marketers seem accepting of the fact that the two platforms control 80% of internet advertising, but there’s risk there, and not just for publishers. This is an existential threat to ad agencies, of course, but it also poses challenges and limitations for PR firms in ad networks as well as independents. It all comes back to content. As Wenda Harris Millard comments, “other players will need to create premium content that appeals to advertisers or use new technologies that aren’t yet mainstream.” Jeff Bezos, are you listening?

Malware remains an enormous threat

We continue to be very vulnerable to malware as cloud usage increases. So, any company who doesn’t already have a plan for how to proceed and how to communicate to customers and stakeholders in the wake of a malware episode should get busy now.

Gaming just won’t die

Gamification simply shapes the digital experience. The gaming industry generated $100 billion in global revenue in 2016, with nearly half coming from Asia. Meeker speculates that our conditioning to gamification is a prelude to human-computer interaction. So, don’t write off chatbot pitches just yet.

There’s a wealth of additional information that won’t surprise technology trend followers, but the data and insights are well worth pursuing. The report also reminds us of something no one should lose sight of, at least in my book. Of the top technology companies in the world, over half – actually 60% – were started by first or second-generation Americans, and fully half of the private startups were founded by first-generation immigrants to our country.

How To Make Surveys Work For PR

A brand-sponsored survey is a time-honored tool for public relations. But how do you ensure the success of a given survey? After all, if the questions are too obvious, it’s likely to be boring, but if the outcomes are unpredictable, could it backfire?

Like any PR vehicle designed to generate positive press response, the success of even an inexpensive omnibus survey begins with careful design and a strong media strategy. Here’s how to accomplish just that.

Craft surveys that will work hard for you.

Always begin at the end

Before you compose your questionnaire, determine what you want the survey to accomplish, what data is most meaningful to your brand, and what would interest relevant media. Some even go so far as to write an “ideal” press release in order to back into the right questions and methodology. For retail app client Retale, we look at the different ways shoppers connect with stores to find trends. As the company was preparing to launch its own Chat Bot, we undertook a study focusing on the popularity of Chat Bots, which set the brand up nicely with data points that made the launch announcement all the more interesting for press.

Don’t confuse PR and market research

Sometimes a client will want to craft a survey to do double duty as a piece of customer research, or to involve the market research team in the survey design. We say, don’t try to combine the two. You’re more likely to end up with a muddle, or, in the best case, a piece of research that’s moderately informative about consumer attitudes but deathly boring to editorial media.

Get professional help

A survey doesn’t have to be a $100,000 study by Gallup to be legitimate, but it should be designed and conducted by a reputable research company. Smart omnibus research providers like Toluna or SSI can take your survey from good to great, and they scream “legitimacy” where media are concerned. A professional provider conducting a nationally projectable survey (typically 1000 respondents) produces the kind of results reporters need for news. Additionally, with simple re-ordering of questions or answers and intuitive word tweaks, the pros can improve any questionnaire.  Professionals will also work with you to create the most economic survey, and importantly, help you understand the data once it’s been collected. Beware of the client who wants to survey his own customers or conduct a website poll. Those self-selected samples are rarely mediaworthy.

Avoid leading questions. 

In other wordsquestions that steer the respondent to a particular answer.  For example, when constructing a question for a survey for a property developer, resist phrasing a question with subjective language like “Most renters are willing to pay extra for onsite amenities; how do you feel?” Instead, construct a question that asks how a respondent feels about something and provide a range of answers. This mechanism allows participants to zero in on the response that most closely resonates with their opinion or feeling and gives the survey sponsor much more precise data to work with.

Newsjack where possible

Of course, the driving factor for an organization to conduct research should be something like getting to know their customers better, or using data to improve a product or service. But we in PR know that surveys are often a cost-effective way to earn recognition as the owner of smart data. To that end, one of the best ways to hit a survey home run is to link the topic to something newsworthy. A case in point is a survey we conducted for ChargeitSpot, the leading provider of secure cell phone charging stations for retail stores across the U.S.  The company queried shoppers on their opinions about Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods. Although ChargeitSpot has no relation to either entity, it’s a retail expert, and the responses, largely from Millennial shoppers, leveraged a buzzy topic, made great copy and were picked up by several national outlets. 

Look for the most startling or contrarian stat to lead a press release

Many clients want to conduct a survey simply to validate what they think they already know. This model will not make news. No reporter is interested in a “bias confirmation”  or “pat on the back” survey. We advise parsing the results for the least expected data point to hook readers in a press release, even if it doesn’t directly support a client key message.  In subsequent copy, explain and unpack other points, choosing those that help tell the story of the findings. For example, Trulia interviewed homeowners on “home ownership regrets” and found that over 33% of homeowners wish they had gone with a bigger purchase. None of those queried mentioned “not consulting Trulia” on their regrets list. But, the company was able to impart useful tips and advice about homebuying –  which will presumably come in handy for purchasers the next time around.

Understand the numbers

Often survey “virgins” look for sweeping percentages as the ones that will make the most news. In our experience, it is more common to find a population evenly divided or with some subtleties that can be meaningful once you understand survey science. For example, in this LinkedIn survey of financial professionals, it is cited that “25% of those queried worry their job could be jeopardized by automation.” Twenty-five percent may seem like a small number, but in this context, it’s significant. And, when referring to it another way –  one-quarter – the number seems even more meaningful. Take the time to dig deeply into numbers to find the most meaningful figures.

Examine the data sets against all demographic info

As all PR people know, sometimes survey data is just “meh” at first glance. The spreadsheet may contain nothing startling or terribly counter-intuitive. This is where the real fun begins. Take the time to compare data sets. Take your statistic and see how it fares when you compare it against different age groups, gender, geography, education, and income. We once found, for example, that families in the midwest spent more on Halloween decorations than any other region, or that women were far more likely to turn down their adult children’s request for a loan. When you unearth data like this, feel free to go down the particular rabbit hole to draw interesting that you might support with the appropriate third-party quotes.

Pepper in third-party quotes

Ideally, your research is robust enough to interest authorities and category experts beyond company executives. The best research news features quotes from respected sources to bolster and support your findings. In the case of Wearsafe, the wearable “panic button” for women, we established a relationship with a security expert and former Secret Service agent. His additions to our media efforts added an extra layer of expertise to create compelling coverage like this Shape Magazine article on Wearsafe’s runners’ survey.

Finally, as we’ve written before on this subject , don’t stop with a press release. Seek other creative outlets for the data such as bylined articles, infographics, newsletter and blog post topics or to provide the basis of a panel discussion or executive talk. Also important? Try to conduct annual surveys on the same topic to garner important year-over-year data that reporters can use for trend pieces. Good data deserves to be shared and sound statistics have a good, long shelf life.

Should Brands Take A Stand?

The common public relations wisdom about brands and politics is that they don’t mix. When an issue fuels consumer anger or public debate, it should be avoided at all costs. The bigger the brand, the more risk-averse the marketing team tends to be, with good reason.

But nowadays there’s pressure for brands to take a stand. The election of Donald Trump didn’t cause the culture wars, but it has hardened the polarized positions that already existed. There’s new energy on the left, resulting in a backlash among Trump supporters, which triggers more division, and so on. Like-minded people live in tribes, separated by geography, social media circles, and traditional media consumption. Some want to know that the brands they support share their views, and even their activism.

Just last month there was a storm of outrage over Megyn Kelly’s interview with conspiracy nut Alex Jones.  JP Morgan Chase pulled its advertising from NBC’s new show in advance to register its disapproval. The move echoed the ad boycott of Breitbart News last year as major brands left the site in droves over its “alt-right” content.

Even Shakespeare had his time in the barrel recently. New York’s Shakespeare in the Park is a longstanding cultural happening here, but this season the protagonist of its production of Julius Caesar looked very much like President Trump, and (spoiler alert!), because he’s assassinated by political rivals, critics saw a possible incitement to violence. Some advertisers lent their ears to the complaints as well. Bank of America pulled its sponsorship of The Public Theater after 11 years.  Following suit was Delta, which tweeted that the production “crossed the line on the standards of good taste.”

Whether you agree or not, the above decisions were at the low end of the risk scale. Wading into a third-rail issue like immigration, abortion, or even climate change, can be far more perilous to a brand reputation. The research isn’t definitive, but most studies show that taking a stand amidst controversy does come with risk. A study by SSRS in collaboration with the 4A’s found that 58 percent of consumers dislike when brands get political. And that dislike may be more than just temporary. A YouGov survey suggests that that when consumers drop a brand due to bad PR, as many as two-thirds never return to it.

Yet there are major exceptions to the common wisdom that make a brand’s PR direction more challenging. Research also shows that younger people – Millennials and especially post-Millennial consumers – are far more likely to say that brands should take a political stand than, say, Baby Boomers. Since these younger segments are beloved by advertisers and are the future of so many brands, PRs and marketers are taking note.

So, when should a brand take a stand?

The answer depends on the brand. For those with a strong activist identity, the path is easier.  Take Patagonia, for example. For its brand, this “new normal” of weekend activism is probably a marketing opportunity. The company’s advocacy on environmental issues is a core value. Even for a less well-identified brand, a strong stand on a social or political matter could drive relevance by differentiating it. But for most mainstream products and companies, the decision to embrace politics – or a politicized issue – is fraught.
How should PRs navigate the new environment? Here are some guidelines to navigating the brand reputation waters when it comes to controversial positions.

Know your audience

When Trump signed the executive order banning travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, Airbnb jumped to oppose it. Not only did CEO Brian Chesky speak out against the order, but Airbnb went further by offering housing to stranded refugees. The position was fully consistent with the brand’s values and that of its customer base of sophisticated international travelers. Patagonia founder Yves Chouinard has slammed Trump over his decision to leave the Paris Accord, but given his history, brand-watchers would probably be more surprised if he were silent. No position or campaign will please everyone, but a brand should know if a position will run counter to the values of its “base.”

Explain the move honestly

One of the early victims of the polarization around Trump was the venerable L.L. Bean brand. After Trump tweeted thanks for the support of Linda Bean, granddaughter of the company’s founder, it set off a move to boycott Bean products. The company wisely kept a low-ish media profile but outlined its response to the protest in a statement posted on Facebook. It explained its company values (“inspiring people to live life outdoors”), summarized its community and philanthropic commitments, including environmental stewardship and education, and respectfully asked for critics to view Linda Bean as a single shareholder rather than a symbol of the brand. It largely worked to defuse the anger, because the connection was relatively tenuous, and because Bean articulated its non-position thoughtfully and well.

Consider internal audiences

JP Morgan Chase’s move to cancel ads supporting the Alex Jones interview was probably consistent with its overall corporate and customer values. CMO Kristin Lemkau tweeted, “As an advertiser, I’m repulsed that @megynkelly would give a second of airtime to someone who says Sandy Hook and Aurora are hoaxes. Why?” Yet it may have been even more important internally. The decision strikes me as a decision made with the corporation’s 25,000 employees in mind. Maybe no one chose to move their business to Chase as a result of the stand, but it was probably a popular decision inside the company and a wise move by Lemkau.

Be consistent

When the heat is on, it may be tempting to retreat from an unpopular position, but a flip-flop can worsen the situation by angering a whole new tribe of consumers. It’s far better to weather the storm. NBC compounded its problems when it tried to stake out a middle ground by editing the Alex Jones interview to make it more harsh. That did nothing to defuse criticism from sponsors and viewers, and it angered Jones, who then released a full-length version of the interview online, preempting NBC’s own airing. By contrast, look at Nordstrom. As the #GrabYourWallet movement to drop Trump-branded fashion products gained steam, it was included in the boycott. After it began to (quietly) phase out the Ivanka Trump fashion line, it faced a backlash, culminating in a nasty tweet by the president himself. But it wisely stayed the course, releasing a diplomatically worded statement and hunkering down until the controversy waned.

Plan for a reaction

Every action spurs a reaction. A smart communicator will explain the decision to stakeholders and advocates, furnish talking points where appropriate, and work to control the message by staffing up on the customer response and social side of the business. The imperative here is that any and all consumer comments – pro and con – are heard and responded to with professionalism.
And if you think we’ve never been in more polarizing times, take heart. Dive into Ron Chernow’s Hamilton for a refresher on the incendiary political rhetoric of America’s early days (not to mention the duels!) And note that long before the current culture wars and Trump’s election, brands waded into controversy based on principle, not just PR. In 1992, for example, Levi’s stopped donating to the Boy Scouts of America over its refusal to accept gay members, sparking product boycotts. Right before Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, IBM was the first major corporation to extend health benefits to same-sex domestic partners in 1996. We may see marriage equality and gay rights as a “safe” issue today, but things were different 25 years ago. These and other brand positions taken against the grain are outlined in Eight Times Brands Got Political, an inspiring reminder that a principled stand is not only possible, but it can be good PR, too – over the long run.

Smart PR: 6 Stories NOT To Pitch Media

In public relations, it’s not always obvious what is and isn’t a story. It’s an important skill to differentiate between story ideas and angles that will make news and those that will make it into the email trash folder. What’s more, it takes PRs with diplomacy and sometimes backbone to ferret out the “good stuff” and tell a boss or client that their idea won’t pass media muster.  Based on our experience, we’ve identified examples of when NOT to pitch that will help make clearer the line between self-serving nonsense and the stories journalists need.

Be the PR person media love to hear from

Avoid the following pitches, and make media contacts look forward to your ideas or contact you when they need an assist.

Low-level personnel announcements.
Unless it’s an editor’s specific job to report on moves or changes to the corporate org chart, he won’t appreciate your clogging an in-box with pitches. Even high-level management changes ought not be pitched to B2B and other writers, but could be communicated in an FYI. Following this rule shows your desire to keep your contacts informed about a company and industry on their radar, but not in a way that shows blatant disregard for what they cover. This rule can also apply to office moves, and, our personal favorite, a new website. Trust us, it isn’t news.

Re-packaging a story that didn’t work the first time.
As in many other circumstances, it’s not wise to beat a dead horse. A colleague tells the story of a client who was very enamored of a particular story angle. The agency backed it up with current newsy facts and set about pitching it. For whatever reason – timing, competition, relevance – it failed to catch fire. The client didn’t want to “waste” the idea, but they also didn’t want the agency to change it very much. Consequently, when the team went to pitch the re-packaged idea, to use another animal analogy – it was viewed as “lipstick on a pig” and died. It was a good opportunity for agency and client learnings, however. Subsequent pitches went through a more rigorous vetting process.

Honors awarded by media outlets.
At first glance, this may seem innocuous, and even newsworthy. But let’s dissect. Last year Crenshaw helped Small Town Brewery receive three honors, from three different publications – Beverage World Magazine’s 2016 Alcohol Power Players Award, Cheers Magazine’s 2016 Growth Brands Award for the year’s fastest growing beer brand and Cigars & Leisure Magazine’s 2016 “Reader’s Choice Award.”  Your first inclination might be to crow about these recognitions, but chances are, no publication will tout an award sponsored by a rival.  The best course is to be very judicious about where and how you pitch such news.

Your company newsletter.
Sure you’re proud of it, and your open rate with opt-ins is above 20%. Those aren’t great reasons to send it as a pitch to industry press, however. Rather, read through the newsletter before it goes to your list and see if there is something newsworthy to draw out and discretely pitch. Developing that nose for company news that has external relevance can be key for gaining an audience with a specific reporter. If analytics show that a newsletter is outperforming similar ones in the industry, or there’s a dramatic upsurge in readership, that might be a story for a very niched journalist.

A frivolous or irrelevant product.
Reporters do not appreciate wasting their time demo-ing a product or service that doesn’t fit their editorial mandate. It’s pretty simple to avoid pitching irrelevant products or services to media. At the outset of a product launch, the agency and client need to discuss features and benefits of a new product, a line extension, or a tweak to an existing item – to see which media warrant outreach. Again, it may be smart to selectively – and softly – sound out some reporters who may be interested without overpromising on the product attributes.

A lackluster personality profile.
Sadly, not every company executive has a compelling enough story for The New York Times Corner Office, or other high-level media outlet. Experienced PR people can spot the attributes in a client’s backstory and size up their potential for such coverage. Not everyone has the narrative arc to make it. In the beginning of a client-agency relationship, it pays to take the time to interview the CEO and other C-suite types. We’re looking for what obstacles they’ve overcome, what risks they took to get to where they are, and interesting tidbits like quirky hobbies (alligator-handling, anyone?) unusual backgrounds, or childhood hardship stories. We use these elements to package a dynamic pitch – and sometimes you just can’t cobble one together. In those cases, it’s a much better idea to avoid pitching the top-tier pubs and go for very specific industry verticals whose editorial bars may be lower.

The bottom line is something we have written about before, know your media before you pitch. Take the time to read what a publication covers and who writes about what. Thorough research will prevent most blunders so you can be the PR person media love to hear from.

PR Looks At Top Brand Stories

In public relations we are on a constant quest to tell resonant, compelling stories that the media love and people will share. In that spirit, here’s a look at a few companies really killing it in the storytelling game.

Is your brand telling its best story?

Take some tips from some stellar standouts and to further improve your storytelling prowess, please download our tip sheet, Once Upon a Time…PR Tips For The Best Brand Storytelling available at the end of this post.

The accidental hit that is Casamigas Tequila.

Although co-founder George Clooney calls the creation of his billion-dollar brand a “happy accident,” Casamigas had the makings of success from its inception. Celebrity cachet, plus a very, very good product and a cool backstory equaled hot sales. The tequila grew out of casual conversations Clooney had with friend and restaurateur Rande Gerber. The celebrity entrepreneur also took a laid-back attitude toward success, which most traditional entrepreneurs can’t afford to do. But not all celebrities can turn star power into selling power. Retail is littered with the detritus of boldface-name-backed product failures. Anyone remember Steven Spielberg’s submarine-themed “Dive” restaurants? Or a credit card known as the Kardashian Kard? Even president Donald Trump – an experienced licenser of his brand – had his share of blunders, including Trump Airlines, Trump Steaks and the now-infamous Trump University.

Oreos: old school brand owns modern marketing.

Ah, Oreos, the little cookie that could! Between its savvy social media content and ever-expanding list of crazy flavors – everything from Banana Split to Limeade, the brand has overhauled its image and become culturally relevant across generations. The marketing pros behind Oreo’s transition from 100-year old institution to digital darling say they treat the brand like a startup. We’ve written on the subject before –– treating an old school brand like a hungry newcomer inspires new thinking and helps break bad habits associated with bloated brands. The results have been stunning and continuous. Did you try Fireworks Oreos this past 4th of July?

Mailchimp makes “weird” work.

Late in 2014, many in marketing and PR and other businesses were fairly familiar with MailChimp as a reliable email provider. But that year, when the wildly popular podcast “Serial” took the world by storm, things changed for the company with the weird name and monkey mascot. MailChimp sponsored the podcast with a simple, yet offbeat ad featuring a girl who mispronounced MailChimp as “MailKimp.” The ad was almost as talked about as “Serial” and really helped put the brand on the map. This past year, MailChimp’s ad agency, Droga5 devised a campaign inspired by the mispronounced word – to great success. The “Did You Mean MailChimp?” campaign, which reimagined the brand name in playful and creative ways. Featuring invented names like MaleCrimp, MailShrimp, KaleLimp, SnailPrimp, JailBlimp, and NailChamp, it included all sorts of wacky ads and activations and paid off with the line “Did You Mean MailChimp?” Droga5 picked up a Grand Prix trophy from Cannes for a campaign that’s helping the brand remain at the top of its game.

Tesla creates a category…and a fan base.

We often caution our clients about being alone in an industry; investors and media often wait to cover upstarts until there’s a real category there. But there are exceptions, and Tesla is a brilliant one. With its latest model, Tesla is ushering in a new era, where budget won’t stand in the way of owning a quality, mass-produced, fully electric car. Even though other legacy brands have electric vehicles, Tesla is creating an entirely new category and dramatically affecting perceptions on energy consumption. In the past two years, it’s the only auto brand to see a positive change in market cap even though its production, sales, and profit numbers aren’t quite keeping up. It just goes to show that despite tepid sales to date, the company’s success with investors is partly the result of strong branding and excitement around new technology. Tesla’s new Model 3 and the company’s underdog narrative has the media buzzing. It hasn’t spent a dime on traditional advertising, and it doesn’t need to.

#JusticeforBarb, the simple hashtag helping “Stranger Things” keep the vibe alive.

The Netflix original series “Stranger Things” took the world by storm with its quirky 70s-set mystery and terrific kid actors. So, it had a lot of critical buzz and great reviews. But the time between the first and second season is well over a year, which raises the question of how to maintain interest during the downtime. No one is saying whether it was planned or not, but the brilliant social media campaign #JusticeforBarb – which capitalizes on the mystery of whether fan favorite Barb is dead or alive – has trended consistently. Today it received a huge shot in the arm when Shannon Purser, the actress who plays Barb was nominated for an Emmy – and social media went wild. It makes the wait for Season 2, which drops in October, all the more exciting and helps assure brand staying power.
Want to learn to make your brand stories sizzle? Download your tipsheet to learn about powerful PR tips for brand storytelling!

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What Makes A Brand Story Authentic?

Any PR or marketing expert will tell you that for a brand to connect with customers, it should convey authenticity. But what about brands that don’t have a compelling story, or who have strayed from their roots due to their very success? Can authenticity be designed after the fact?

It seems right up there with “planned spontaneity” – an oxymoron. But a recent New York Times feature points up the dilemma of established brands who struggle to appear “genuine” as younger, upstart companies move into their space. It’s about the Greek yogurt marketing wars and brand Yoplait’s efforts to craft an authentic story for its own Greek yogurt entry.

As a division of General Mills and a category leader, Yoplait naturally wanted to take advantage of market changes to grab a healthy dollop of the category, but its Yoplait Greek product was a flop. No surprise there. Why would fans of the thicker, tart yogurt – with its better-for-you health halo –  turn to a brand with no heritage in Greek yogurt if they can choose Chobani or Fage?

The Yoplait brand team tried hard for an “authentic” Greek yogurt identity, but each time, the customer reaction was sour. It ultimately decided to abandon the Greek wars and out-authentic the upstarts by tapping its own French provenance. And, voila! Its newest product was created in the tradition of the farm-fresh yogurt produced in the countryside of Brittany or Normandy, complete with the traditional glass-jar package and fruit on the bottom.

It’s too early to tell if the new Yoplait variety will succeed, but I give the brand high marks for abandoning its Greek ambitions and changing course. It will never be an authentic Greek yogurt, so why not pivot to more credible attributes? And in a PR coup, why not use the struggle to serve up some raw, but real, coverage for the new product entry?

The Yoplait story is typical of larger brands who sometimes try too hard to be what they’re not. This can be from hubris, corporate pressure, or a misunderstanding of true authenticity. It’s like the joke among PR and ad agencies that every client wants a “viral” video. Big brands have the resources, the marketing talent and the distribution clout to leverage a market trend, but they often fail, in part because they’re not nimble. But it’s also because they’re naturally risk-averse. Innovation may come from challenger brands because they have less to lose.

There’s no magic formula to creating an authentic brand narrative, but there are steps that can guide the process.

Revisit the brand’s roots

Kudos to Yoplait for digging more deeply into its history rather than simply flailing at the Greek yogurt opportunity. After all, no two brands have the same origin story. That may not be the ultimate narrative, but it can offer inspiration. Lego does this very well, tapping into the premise that there’s a “builder” in all of us and evoking the power of childlike imagination in its brand storytelling. Even Coke going back to original bottle was a simple but powerful return to its iconic beginning.

Stake your claim carefully

I’ve never been convinced that all brand attributes must be ownable, because that’s not practical. But the key brand characteristics and its promise to customers must be credible. What can your brand legitimately claim? Innovation? GE has done a remarkable job of communicating its corporate innovation ethos, in part by glorifying the R&D workers who help make it possible, but it’s hardly the only brand to make that claim. Starbucks built its brand in part by providing a “third place” where customers can go to linger over their coffee. Then it backed up the promise by offering WiFi, streaming music, and other innovations to its brand experience. Red Bull is about masculine energy, pushing limits, and living boldly. It’s not alone, but it executes the promise flawlessly and credibly through its marketing and PR programs.

Use the power of myth

This is almost a default for entrepreneurial brands, who like to craft a David and Goliath myth starring the company founder. Yet myths and archetypes work for established brands, too. One way is to make an employee or division the hero of a variation on the holy grail search. Some brands let customers tell their own stories. Outdoor wear brand Patagonia uses the power of myth and the persuasion of visual media in its “Stories We Wear” series about experiences from its own customers. Another example is Airbnb, whose proactive PR and marketing focuses almost completely on its hosts. They are the brand, literally.

Claiming to be authentic isn’t enough, and a narrative that’s not credible won’t work in the long run. But nearly any brand can dig deep and craft a story that fits its origins and promise, and that grabs customer attention because it’s not only relevant, but real.