MediaRadar Talks Facebook vs. Snapchat

It was all hands on deck as the Crenshaw team helped as sales intelligence provider MediaRadar host a stellar panel themed “Facebook vs. Snapchat: What’s Next for Third-Party Distribution?” this past April.

Adweek’s Marty Swant guided a crackling discussion with a panel of experts who included Maia McCann from Little Things, Emily Cohn from Business Insider, Kieley Taylor from GroupM, Brian Madden from Hearst, and MediaRadar’s own CEO Todd Krizelman. Panelists reflected on the recent tectonic shifts in the digital publishing mediascape and the implications for digital advertising.

5 Pillars Of PR Success

What separates the good from the truly great when it comes to the success of a public relations program? Beyond native talent and strong skills, there are lessons on execution and optimization that simply come with experience.

Success in PR is earned

PR plays the long game

Great PR rarely exists in a vacuum. In the same way, earned media coverage may seem spontaneous, but it’s typically the result of a long-term plan. The PR quarterback has to see the whole field while keeping his head on a swivel. Every move is made to get closer to the goal line – in this case, a set of business objectives, like creating prospects or building a specific reputation. There are few sadder outcomes than working to generate coverage that turns out to conflict with goals, or that doesn’t move the needle, so the “invisible” work of planning and messaging is critical. And when it comes to execution, it takes a sustained PR effort to build real brand attachment, rather than a single media hit or initiative. Short-term thinking and quick fixes are characteristics of inexperienced PR pros.

PR pros know business

Once upon a time, the PR department could fax out press releases all day with little understanding of the company’s business strategy. Since the digital revolution has multiplied the breadth and number of communications channels, the role of PR teams expanded. With every business maneuver magnified, reputation now carries measurable, concrete value. In today’s era of globalized connectivity, the chief communications officer has evolved into a trusted advisor to the CEO, expected to offer counsel on corporate moves. Additionally, the PR team’s efforts must align with marketing, advertising, and sales departments, all under a unifying set of business aims.

It’s about telling, not selling

Much of PR and marketing is less about delivering messaging and more about delivering entertaining, educational, and useful content. While some PR activities can surely generate impressions, leads, and conversions, PR is not necessarily a reliable demand-generator. Rather, it builds brand awareness and reputation over time. A good PR team will often need to shape and tell how a company was started or to explain the founder’s game-changing point-of-view. They work to open up channels of communication through speaking engagements, panel discussions, and expert commentary placements. All require the ability to tell a compelling story with a consistent voice across a variety of channels.

The best PR leverages every nugget of news

A media placement is not just a media placement. Every piece of content should do double duty, be recycled, and leveraged for all it’s worth. Sure, it’s a tactical detail, but repurposing can magnify outcomes beyond your expectations. A company founder’s conference keynote can be a series of blog posts, or a podcast, or possibly distilled into a trade media pitch. Company milestones like an award or an acquisition can be amplified through earned and owned media, with an occasional paid post or initiative mixed in. But PR multi-purposing does not exist solely to squeeze all the juice from the lemon. It is a product of a comprehensive PR plan where the full marketing and communications orchestra plays in harmony.

Great PR carries a creative license

As we noted in last week’s post, the creative PR pro is a powerful PR pro. Creative thinking is the edge that helps rise above the rest. So-called “creative agencies” were once the domain of advertising and marketing, but inventive content and fresh tactics are fundamental to great PR campaign development and execution. Success is contingent on bringing fresh angles to established narratives, new ways to present stories, and original approaches to pitching stories. It translates abstract concepts into compelling language – language that also aligns with business strategies.
In many ways, these pillars make up a certain mindset that fuels achievement. The good news is all five keys to success can be learned. If you have this mindset and are looking to break into the profession — great! Check out this earlier post on how to nail a PR dream job.

In Bold Move, ABC Boots Roseanne Reboot

There were bigger stories breaking on the Tuesday after Memorial Day, but on social media the news was all about Roseanne. It started with @therealroseanne’s revolting tweet about former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett. The post was bizarre, horrible, and nakedly racist, but at the risk of sounding cynical, I didn’t think anything much would happen as a result. I was wrong, and I couldn’t be happier about that. Not just because ABC did the right thing, but because of what I think it means.

By now there’s a numbing familiarity to the cultural outrage cycle, especially on Twitter. A celebrity (or possibly the president) tweets something offensive, and it triggers a backlash from other celebrities, pundits, media, and active social media users. Cable news shows are pumped with fresh material, indignant ripostes bounce around the internet, and boycotts are launched. Most of the time it’s sound and fury that signifies very little beyond how divided we are, how much time we spend on social media, or how tough it is to fill the cable talk cycle.

This time, however, things were a bit different. The tweet about Valerie Jarrett wasn’t @therealroseanne’s first offensive post. It wasn’t even the first racist one. But it was the one that brought swift consequences, both for the star and her future income stream. ABC’s announcement that it would cancel the Roseanne reboot just hours after her offensive tweet wasn’t just surprising, but it skipped several steps in the typical outrage cycle. Roseanne did apologize and delete her tweet, but ABC cut straight to the chase, avoiding a painful drip-drip of negative coverage and threatened ad boycotts. It not only canceled the show, but it took a clear public position against the ugly racism of her tweet, calling it “abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values.”

What’s more, the ABC decision was quickly followed by a tweet from Roseanne’s talent agency, ICM, that it had dropped her. Then came the news that Hulu would remove the old show from its library, joining Viacom and its channels in pulling all Roseanne reruns. One after another, the dominoes fell.

Maybe it was the fact that the rebooted show’s ratings had declined by the end of its season. Or it could be that ABC was ultimately exasperated with Roseanne’s erratic and bigoted behavior. But Roseanne was the network’s top show, and I like to think that its swift move heralds a tipping point. Like the #metoo movement, which was a long time in coming, it’s just possible that we’ve had enough of racism, or to be precise, of people who think it’s okay to tweet racist or bigoted thoughts in the guise of humor.

Even Sanofi, the maker of Ambien, got into the mix after @TheRealRoseanne tweeted Wednesday morning, blaming her original racist post on “ambien tweeting.”

Importantly to those of us in the PR business, the swift death of Roseanne is another case of a corporate brand stepping up where you might not have expected it. Sure, the show’s ratings had leveled off, but the rebooted Roseanne vehicle was the number-one show at ABC and the most successful new sitcom in years. Roseanne herself headlined the network’s upfront meeting presentation to advertisers just two weeks ago.

By way of explaining ABC’s decision in the face of a $60 million revenue loss, several have pointed to the fact that Channing Dungey, its relatively new entertainment president, is an African American woman. And that may be part of it, but I posit that this wouldn’t have happened the same way a year ago. Heck, it may not have happened even a month ago. And it feels good not to be jaded about this one.

On the very Tuesday that Starbucks closed 8000 stores for racial bias training, a bigoted star performer got what was coming to her, and the corporate entities involved didn’t even seem to flinch. And in the midst of a shambolic administration where presidential opinions and conspiracies are tweeted as fact, and faith in institutions from government to media is shaky, corporations are stepping in to assert their values – and maybe even remind us of ours.

Things Your PR Firm Should Tell You (That You May Not Want To Hear)

The PR agency/client relationship can be a delicate dynamic, especially when things aren’t all rosy. The fortunes of a company and its PR agency are inextricably linked, and a good PR team  must have the confidence and courage to deliver bad news when necessary. After all, PR pros are in the communications business. To the client, bad news or constructive criticism may feel uncomfortable, but an open channel of communications is key to a fruitful client-agency partnership.

A good PR agency tells you when..

Your message doesn’t measure up

A company’s message can be a powerful differentiator, and it should show in its communications, from social media posts to CEO bylined articles. A business may think it has fully defined its brand voice, but it may have a narrow view, or one based on technical superiority. If the story isn’t  sufficiently compelling and different, the PR team needs to say so. Then all need to start the work of transforming a list of product attributes into compelling, media-ready storytelling.

The PR agency brings valuable objectivity and experience to the table, and a good team will collaborate on defining and fleshing out the brand voice and its story. A good test of whether an agency is willing to speak up is what they tell you before the agreement is signed.

Your branding is holding you back.

Not every PR professional is a branding expert, but we are experts in messaging. At times, a company’s branding or advertising will compete with the PR messaging, or it simply doesn’t fit the story the PR team is serving up to media. We once had a client who set out to market a high-priced item of luxury women’s apparel under a brand that was contrived and downmarket in its style and tone.  Remember, public perception is driven by visual branding, marketing, and public relations (among other functions), and inconsistencies will harm or fragment that perception over time. A smart client will make sure the PR team has a voice in key branding changes and decisions, and a good agency will use it.

What to expect when you’re expecting (too much)

It’s certainly tempting to ride the client’s wave of optimism or ambition. We want to say yes, we can do that! There’s nothing wrong with aiming for the stars – as long as you don’t expect the universe. An experienced PR team will manage expectations by outlining tangible deliverables and measurable goals at the outset. An early- stage company may not have a roadmap for reasonable expectations of activities like pitching, content, or earned media coverage. The PR team will be doing a disservice to everyone involved by allowing expectations to exceed reality. A company may not want to hear that the PR team can’t control the final edit of the CEO interview, or that the first month may not break records for coverage, but it’s the PR team’s responsibility to make sure the client knows what to expect and when to expect it.

How to face the music

When things go south, a business cannot bury its head in the sand. It may want to let a crisis blow over, or just go quiet until the next news cycle, especially if the criticism is undeserved. A CEO may feel reticent to acknowledge unflattering reviews or misbehavior that comes to light. Here, a good PR firm will urge the company to do what in its best long-term interest. In most cases this means to face the reputation crisis with sound advice and appropriate action.

Everybody’s a critic, including the PR agency

Part of a PR team’s job is to critique the client’s performance in media interviews and public speaking. A good PR rep will be on the phone or in the room for the media meeting, and he’ll offer constructive criticism about the conversation. In a less direct way, a PR team will often hear feedback about its client’s business or communications from journalists, analysts, or stakeholders. Where that feedback is valuable and relevant, it should be passed on and incorporated into programs going forward. In today’s world, communications isn’t about broadcasting your message or story to customers; it’s also about listening to the perceptions and responses of high-value audiences.

You’re going separate ways

On rare occasions, a client-agency relationship will become untenable, and one or both parties may choose to cut ties. If the initiating party is the PR agency, it may come as a shock. No agency likes to lose business, so it takes a severe problem – or an irresistible offer from a competitor – to bring on a client firing. For the most part, if agencies and clients choose thoughtfully and are transparent at the outset, the working relationship should never degrade to such a level. Check out our earlier post on why your PR firm wants to fire you. (We don’t have those problems, but they can happen!)

The good news is that hard conversations actually lead to a better working partnership. A solid agency-client relationship thrives on collaboration and open communication, so a good agency will offer it and a good client will welcome it. For some advice on how to tell a client they are wrong, see this earlier post.

Truth In Media Relations: When PR Is "Risky Business"

Many years ago at my first PR agency, we represented a “dot-com” startup in the ticket resale business. When I was introduced at a board meeting, the founder casually mentioned that I’d be serving as a media spokesperson as the company navigated tricky messaging around gray areas of the industry. This came as a surprise to me, and later a lawyer on the board pulled me aside to talk about it. He warned against speaking on the record for the company, emphasizing that I could be liable for any false or misleading public statements put out. The implication was clear; he didn’t trust the founder to follow the rules or tell the truth.

Our work for the company was short-lived, and I never spoke on the record for it, but the experience came to mind when I read Mark Leibovich’s article about the highwire act walked by the president’s media spokespersons, “The Risky Business Of Speaking For President Trump.” It zeroes in nicely on the damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t dilemma of presidential surrogates, from the hapless Sean Spicer to the current White House lineup. Leibovich puts it this way, referring to Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley.

“In Gidley’s case, it means saying things that Gidley might normally not be inclined to say, or defending things he might normally have a hard time defending, or offending people in ways that might defy his otherwise pleasing nature. But Gidley is willing to do it, and that, perhaps more than any of his other qualities, is why I had become fascinated with him.”

Despite Liebovich’s clever “Flack Ops” profile or what critics may think, PR people aren’t professional liars, and the industry vigorously promotes a code of ethics for the profession. PR agencies who belong to the PR Council must review and sign a pledge to maintain ethical conduct as a condition of membership. We train staff about lines that must never be crossed.

But what about our clients? While most PR people don’t face a press gaggle from a podium on a regular basis, there are plenty who serve as on-the-record surrogates for VIPs, celebrities, politicians, and CEOs. Like a White House press secretary, they may be asked to spin, deflect, or even stonewall when facing a tricky or damaging story. But most don’t worry about the basic credibility of their client or the damage they might be doing to their own reputation.

Can a professional communicator survive intact as a spokesperson for a controversial client? I’ve searched my own experience and spoken to two colleagues who represent mercurial, high-profile clients with a reputation for controversy, and here’s my take.

Clarify your goals

This isn’t always as obvious as it seems. If a PR professional takes a spokesperson role in order to advocate for a specific agenda or ideology, some compromises may be worth it. If it’s a quick payday, ditto. Those are personal decisions. But if the post is meant to be a stepping stone to bigger and better things, then a loss of credibility is career suicide.

Know your dealbreakers

It’s essential to decide in advance where to draw your line in the sand. For most of us, that line would be lying for a client, whether on or off the record. If a PR rep isn’t sure about the truth of a client’s claim but wants to continue to represent that client, they have two choices: insist on seeing evidence of accuracy, or stick to talking points that make it clear your source is the client and you are repeating his message in good faith.

Ask yourself: can you really influence the client?

Like top corporate communications officers, a good media spokesperson can function as a two-way channel, representing the client to press, but also channeling media or stakeholder views back to the client. Some enter the fray thinking they can exert a positive influence, improve the relationship all around, or even change the client’s views. My opinion is that most VIPs are not very receptive to alternative points of view when it comes to long-held opinions or attitudes about the press. Accepting a post while hoping to change the client’s view about transparency may be a bit like marrying someone in the hope of changing them. It’s a nice thought, but it rarely works.

The Power Of Creativity In PR

Some people don’t think of PR professionals as particularly creative – except when it comes to hatching wild PR stunts or gimmicks, like KFC’s fried-chicken-flavored nail polish. Yet creativity plays a part in much of a PR person’s daily work. They must constantly generate fresh concepts for bylines and story angles for pitching, as well as dreaming up campaign ideas for clients.

According to The Holmes Report’s Creativity in PR study, which surveys PR executives all over the world, 68% of PR agency respondents say their clients are more likely to approach the PR team for “big creative ideas” than in the past. There was also a significant increase in agencies who employ a formally named creative director, from 37% to 56%. Still, a prime impediment to PR teams’ showing out-of-the-box creative chops is clients’ aversion to risk– something not so prevalent in the advertising field.

In today’s atmosphere of continuous communications from a multitude of channels, PR people (and their marketing peers) must come up with original approaches to storytelling and content to break through the noise.

4 ways creative PR takes it up a notch

Creativity in PSAs helps make a tired message fresh

We’ve all seen 30-second PSAs on late-night TV that feature a talking head looking into the camera and telling you to adopt a dog, or talk to your children about drugs. The Canadian Ontario Association of Optometrists unveiled an eye-opening approach to getting a simple public service message to the public. To urge people to give their eyes periodic breaks from screens, it filmed a series of snappy, fun viral videos called 20 Second Daydreams.

This fresh packaging of a mundane personal health topic makes all the difference. The video series makes a point through entertaining content, as opposed to a routine “eat-your-veggies” message. Showing beats telling, but it takes more work.

Creativity helps express company values in a distinct brand voice

Advertisements for travel metasearch sites usually involve a cutesy gnome (Travelocity) or a charismatic spokesperson (Trivago). Instead of traditional ads, Danish travel site Momondo produced a short documentary about 67 people doing DNA tests to find out more about their ancestral origins. Does this have anything do with shopping for airfares? Only tangentially, but it’s effective.

Momondo links the documentary to a brand statement that differentiates it from competitors like Expedia. “Our vision is of a world where our differences are a source of inspiration and development, not intolerance and prejudice.” (Expedia’s vision statement is milquetoast in comparison.) Momondo’s creative endeavor was no small project; it involved a heavy lift of DNA tests, interviews, and filmmaking. Yet it started an important conversation by espousing its values through storytelling. Seventeen million views later, Momondo has taken a strong stand and conveyed it an entertaining way through creative content and PR.

A great idea aligns a company’s mission with its market

Intuit reinvented itself six years ago as a provider of services to small businesses. Its Small Business Big Game campaign was not only a contest for small business owners to win a Super Bowl ad, but a way for it to interact with and celebrate SMBs. The 17,000 participating owners had the opportunity to tell their stories and receive additional benefits through the program. The initiative was an inspired method of spreading awareness of the Intuit Quickbooks brand, and more importantly, to position the company as an advocate for small business owners. PR teams need to conceive inspiring ideas to communicate alignment with its audience.

Creative PR helps B2B brands be accessible

B2Bs must scramble to find creative ways to gain competitive advantage in crowded markets. One way is to offer the company’s more human face to the public. Capitalizing on the trend of B2B PR/marketing borrowing B2C tactics, a UK data security company opened up a pop-up retail store in 2017 in London where customers were required to pay for products with personal data from their mobile phones. The Data Dollar Store was a fun, experiential event that raised awareness about data privacy, thereby communicating the company’s purpose to the general public. The event, boasting a playful, performance art ambience, accurately reflected the company’s values (“supporting art, science, and sport”) and the overall brand vibe. A firm’s PR team must bring their best creative chops when envisioning a tactic that generates so much earned and shared media on such a modest budget.

Audacity can add authenticity

All four above examples have the elements of authenticity and audacity in common. Creativity is in itself PR currency, since it’s the x-factor that can boost the inherent value of any campaign tactic. Some say it cannot be taught, but we disagree. The more you exercise those creative muscles, the stronger they become. Creative concepts are by definition outliers, so they may take a leap of faith. Small steps lead to larger strides and big ideas.

PR Advantages of Pitching Trade Press

Every B2B tech PR person dreams of the splashy feature that will help make their company brand instantly recognizable. Maybe it’s a Fast Company article detailing a compelling success or a groundbreaking startup story. We all live for the big hits, but not every feature story is a magic bullet, and they don’t come along every month. Just as some celebrities are famous for being famous, big-media notoriety can build the ego without building the brand.

If the big-name media feature is the show horse, then trade publication coverage is the less glamorous workhorse of PR. The B2B buyers’ journey has been evolving rapidly, with research indicating that “decision makers don’t just go to a website, add a data center to their shopping cart and check out. They research, ask questions, ask more questions and spend countless hours online before deciding.” Those hours, of course, include studying trade journals, reviews, and analyst reports.

In a B2B purchase decision, third-party influence is a powerful way to capture customer interest. While pitching the national publications should definitely be a part of the overall PR plan, no B2B tech campaign can afford to ignore the opportunities that trade media afford.

How trade coverage wins

Trade coverage has built-in relevance

While a feature in The Verge reaches a broad demographic of tech enthusiasts, a similar story in AI Magazine (published by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence) will target the AI community: engineers, entrepreneurs, experts, and fans of artificial intelligence. Wired describes itself as covering the intersection of technology, science, art, and culture. A B2B with a new VR (virtual reality) tool for real estate sales should never neglect specialty outlets VR Journal or AR/VR Magazine – as well as real estate trade journals like Realtor Magazine. Real estate company buyers are more likely to be paging through these journals than Wired. This adds up to coverage with greater relevance to the likeliest buyers. Your story may have less eyes on it, but they will be the right eyes.

Trade pubs are a community network

Digital and print trades in a given sector are tantamount to a virtual business community. They’re platforms for idea-sharing, networking, recruiting, and advertising. A consistent presence in the right trade outlet can announce the arrival of a new company as a legit player, or it may help establish a founder as thought leader. Trade coverage can also help attract talent and be a door-opener with prospective clients. Some trades are distributed free through industry membership organizations, and this less commercial model breeds greater objectivity and familiarity within the community.

Trades placements yield good returns

Pitching trade press can be easier than nailing a story in a large media outlet. A large outlet will be looking for a seven-figure financing announcement or a splashy customer testimonial. Plus, bigger outlets like to report on bigger companies. In trades, the stories can be smaller and less flashy, but more in-depth. If a new company has a very specific, highly technical new tool, its value may be hard to communicate to a wide audience, but a trade may love it, technical details and all.

Additionally, trade press hits can multiply opportunities. B2B can leverage trade outlet coverage by repurposing it into owned media, as well as in case studies, white papers, webinars, and pitches to bigger outlets. National publications sometimes even pick up trade journal coverage, leading to exponential coverage for your brand. You get the best of both worlds.

Trades confer “earned authority”

Like all earned media, trade publications offer that all-important third-party endorsement. Industry insiders respect the credibility of trade journal reporting and use it as a valuable resource. That respect and trustworthiness which journal coverage confers upon a company translates into expanded brand visibility, new leads, and conversions opportunities. The pitching of bylines and interviews to trade publications is a cornerstone of a well-conceived thought-leadership plan. An executive whose name and point of view appears regularly in the trade press will become an industry fixture.

This air of authority that trade placements produce also helps guide B2B decision-makers along the buyer’s journey. In the information collection phase of the buyer’s journey, B2B decision makers seek to gather content more trustworthy than that from a company’s own website. They dig online for data sheets, case studies, reviews, analyst reports, and white papers – much of which can be found in trade journals.

Two of the biggest 2018 marketing trends in B2B involve the creation of more marketing content and the personalized delivery of that content. Pitching to trade media satisfies both trends, by assisting in the creation of relevant content and its most appropriate audience. An inexperienced PR pro may neglect trade outlet pitching, opting instead to swing for the fences. But savvy B2B teams realize that more hits in the right places can add up to winning outcomes.

4 Ways PR Creates Brand Attachment

While top-tier marketing and advertising are valuable, associated PR campaigns can help propel a brand to the next level of emotional attachment. It’s that anticipation you get when you hear the three-note music intro before a Netflix movie or the warm recognition of a classic Mickey Mouse logo. You feel connected to these brands. They’ve become an enduring part of your life and are woven into enjoyable memories or happy experiences.

Some customers are initially attracted to certain brands because they like their ad message. Others are loyal because of a good experience with product quality or customer service. But sometimes the emotional connection between us and a brand is hard to define, and even harder to achieve. For companies looking to differentiate themselves from the pack, PR (integrated with advertising and marketing) can help build a foundation of brand love.

4 ways PR creates brand attachment

PR gives voice to brands

Especially in today’s atmosphere of increasing corporate activism, a company that takes a stand on a controversial topic can create lasting bonds with customers – even if it alienates others in the process. It is well documented that today’s rising generations value a company’s ethical stance and an authentic commitment to social responsibility. PR is a primary tool for corporate speech on social issues. In 2016, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook took a controversial stand (on its news site and in TV interviews) against the U.S. government when it refused to unlock the San Bernadino shooter’s iPhone. The shooter’s phone was ultimately cracked without Apple’s help, but its stand on privacy was consistent with long-held principles and arguably those of its core customers. Patagonia, a smaller, privately owned company, has earned a loyal customer base by making good products, but its communications has also played a big role in engaging consumers. The brand’s book publishing and filmmaking arms help convey its position on environmental issues that are also important to stakeholders and customers. When brands like these take a stand on social issues, they are humanized, making it easier for like-minded consumers to engage.

Storytelling brings brands to life

When a company tells the story of the human beings behind the corporate logo, it brings the company to life. But the storytelling should go beyond the founders and employees. A great PR initiative will allow its other stakeholders (like employees, customers and third-party influencers) to tell their stories. In the B2B sector, Salesforce excels at storytelling and has a team dedicated to it. Its website has a success stories page, with well-produced articles and videos featuring “trailblazers” – Salesforce users. CEO Marc Benioff’s outspoken leadership on the topic of management always goes hand in hand with the Salesforce story – making him an outstanding CEO brand evangelist. His storytelling prowess combined with his corporate activism makes it obvious why Salesforce is such a beloved B2B brand.

PR helps differentiate

People gravitate towards uniqueness. Customers cannot fall in love with just another face in the crowd. They fall for the disruptors like Apple and McDonald’s (back in the 50s, it was radical). Differentiation is key to gaining competitive advantage over crowded markets. In B2B, ads alone may not inspire the confidence a customer needs to make a high-priced decision in a long sales cycle. Third-party endorsements like consultant reviews, analyst reports, and executive bylines help to explicate a company’s unique attributes for the potential buyers.

But sometimes a company lacks a true differentiator when it comes to its product or service. With all things being equal, intangible attributes become a source of differentiation: values, ethos, management philosophy, corporate culture. Public relations programs are designed to bring such values into the public conversation. Certainly, Airbnb has gained separation from competitors like VRBO/Homeaway through its marketing/PR activations. REI’s “opt outside” campaign, in which it closed its stores on black Friday and urged people to go outside, was a compelling social activism campaign that in turn helped REI separate itself from other outdoor retailers.

PR helps fosters brand immersion

Marketing, advertising, and PR should work in combination when tying to take brands to the next level. Experiential marketing generates the kind of customer interaction that is key to attachment. When brands create immersive experiences that are so compelling and unusual, they earn media placements from the press, adding a whole other dimension to the marketing campaign. These activations allow customers to participate in the brand story, as well as capture and share unique and memorable experiences.

Netflix partnered with Lyft to create some mildly scary, but amazing experiences for Lyft customers in promotion of the second season of Stranger Things. Borrowing a page from Walt Disney’s playbook, the Lego Group, which was named #2 most reputable company in 2017, created LegoLand theme parks and a Legoland themed hotel. Airbnb opened a pop-up open house for four days in London as part of its 2016 “Live There” campaign. Over 1400 people ventured in to see how locals live. Not only did Airbnb give people fun and informative experiences, but the event incorporated its messaging — the resonant theme urging travelers to ‘live like locals.’

Companies not only create immersive experiences with events and attractions, but also with dialogue. Netflix frequently invites two-way conversation and participation of its customers, especially on social media. For its show Orange is the New Black, it created a photo-sharing app on which viewers could make their own show-related memes. Users get to feel as if they are in on the joke and in on the fun. Experiences are not easily forgotten, and they break the barrier between brand and customer. For more on experiential PR, see this PR Week article.

However, if substance does not back up a company’s storytelling, it’s unlikely to make customers fall in love. There must be a great story to tell; the commitment to values must be sincere and relevant; and the interaction must be honest. Whether for a mid-sized B2B or an early-stage consumer brand, a solid PR approach can build brand attachment as well as growth. See our earlier post for more on 7 PR tips for brands to woo customers.

Analyzing First Responders In Crisis PR

A crisis situation presents abundant challenges for public relations and business leaders, not the least of which are the critical first communications. The tone of the language, the medium of the message, and its timing contribute to public perception of a company’s management of the situation. First statements say a lot about what a brand stands for, and they reflect on the quality of its leadership. As with a first impression, you never get a second chance to issue an initial response.

Five crisis PR first responses

Facebook dodges blame

Facebook’s response to the recent data privacy controversy was immediate – so immediate that it happened the day before the scandal broke. It preempted the bombshell New York Times investigation by releasing a statement on March 16 announcing the suspension of Cambridge Analytica.

Facebook crisis response

But timing can only go so far. While the speed was admirable, the content of the message and its tone were less successful, given the complicated nature of the data privacy issues involved. Facebook’s first instinct was to claim it was a victim of Cambridge Analytica’s mistake and to deflect with a series of privacy policy changes.

The March 16-17 statements come off as antiseptic and legalistic CYA – maybe not surprising since they were authored by Facebook’s VP and Deputy General Counsel. #DeleteFacebook quickly became a trending topic. Within four days, amid a public and media reaction and a deepening crisis, CEO Mark Zuckerberg launched an apology tour with social posts, a more contrite and complete news statement, and TV interviews. Despite these missteps, Zuckerberg’s well-executed TV apologies and a flow of news about Facebook’s fresh privacy measures have helped it bounce back, at least in valuation. As of this post, it has reclaimed $134B in lost market value.

carnival cruise Lines crisis PR

Carnival Cruise – the unsinkable PR ship

When a passenger’s video of water flooding a Carnival cruise ship hallway went viral on May 3, it spawned thousands of references to Titanic and some sensational news headlines. The company could easily have jumped the gun and responded defensively, given that the ship was in no danger.
Instead, they spoke with action. After doing a phenomenal job of cleanup and caring for passengers, Carnival let its brand ambassadors to do the talking, as many passengers posted positively about the excellent responsiveness of the ship’s staff. A day later on May 4, Carnival’s first news release clearly detailed the event and compensation. The follow-up May 6 release offered some skillful humble-bragging about the strong response and praised its passengers and crew. It does not attempt to shift blame or to run away from embarrassment. Carnival has deep experience responding to emergencies, and it shows. Its deft handling of the mishap kept things in perspective, and it was a public relations win.

Musk shocks nobody with aloofness

On March 23, a driver was killed after colliding with a concrete divider while using the Autopilot feature in a Tesla Model X. Despite the fact that it wasn’t the first Autopilot-related fatality, neither Tesla nor its famously outspoken CEO Musk made any comment on social media about the incident. To be fair, the legal team may have warned against a public expression of sympathy, out of concern it would imply admission of responsibility. However, it would have served Tesla to acknowledge the accident and express regret even if there was no culpability on its part.
Tesla didn’t issue a statement about the accident until four days later, with a blog post titled “What We Know About Last Week’s Accident.” The statement offers a clear recounting of what was then known – and not known – about the accident, between bookended expressions of sympathy. The language fits the Tesla brand: aloof, calculated, and confident.

The final paragraph of a March 30 follow-up blog stands out as a piece of sincere communication. In it, Tesla addresses its own perceived emotional distance, and itcrisis PR seems defensive in doing so. Tesla goes on to lay blame for the accident squarely on the driver. Whether fair or not, the statements come off as consistent with the brand. Since then, Tesla has found itself embroiled in multiple controversies (including a subsequent accident), and its stock has fallen about 70 points since February. In the wake of so many controversies, its communications has been slow and reactive.

Southwest’s emotional intelligence

Southwest Airlines CEOAfter an emergency landing in which a passenger was killed on April 17, Southwest released an initial statement on social media and its press page saying it was gathering information about the situation. Unlike Tesla, Southwest made the simple acknowledgement, showing that the situation had its attention and showing concern for loved ones seeking information. The follow-up news release came four hours later and included a link to a video featuring CEO Gary Kelly. Kelly emphasized that the family of the victim was the primary concern. He spoke from the heart — without regard for the airline’s possible culpability. The initial communication demonstrates emotional intelligence in the wake of a truly terrible accident.  Southwest later showed good taste along with solid PR judgment by suspending its marketing and advertising.

Starbucks’ solution to a venti problem

Starbucks routinely engages with its customers on Twitter and other social platforms, responding to many questions and customer service issues. Yet its first public response to the April 12 arrest of two African American customers who simply hadn’t ordered anything at a Philadelphia location was in a tweet the following day. The update was a simple ‘we are looking into it’ boilerplate, as many posted indignantly about what had happened. There was no mention of the customers’ race, or of why a Starbucks employee had called the police. A day later, however, Starbucks issued formal apologies, both on social platforms and through a CEO video and statement on its news site. {For a PR view into video CEO apologies, see this earlier post.}

starbucks crisis PR

The language was strong, peppered with words like “reprehensible,” and it faced the elephant in the room by condemning racial profiling. Moreover, it outlined steps to address the situation. Here, the response was slow, but true to form, once the company grasped the impact of the incident, it engaged fully. In the weeks since the controversy, Starbucks has not seen a drop in business, even in Philadelphia. It plans to close 8000 stores on May 29 for a half-day of employee education around racial bias.

All five of these recent corporate “first responders” behaved in a fashion aligned with the brand involved. You can see Zuckerberg’s fingerprints on Facebook’s response, just as Elon Musk’s personality is evident in Tesla’s. The first statement in crisis response carries great importance, because it sets the tone for what will follow. Despite the fact that every major corporation prepares a crisis communications plan, the urgency of first response demands a certain degree of improvisation. It’s this initial response that often reveals a more authentic, unvarnished brand voice. The public glimpses the voice of the company, and the company gets to show its strength — or weakness.
See this fascinating Wired article for a deeper peek into the inner mechanisms of crisis PR.

Brands Bungle Response To Michael Cohen Scandal

This week two sophisticated corporations faced an unwelcome PR challenge. AT&T and pharma giant Novartis were confronted with awkward and pressing questions about “consulting” payments each made to a company set up by Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen. In each case, the public response left a lot to be desired.

Cohen is under criminal investigation for improper business dealings, and Essential Consultants is the same LLC that disbursed the famous $130,000 payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels in October 2017. On Tuesday Michael Avenatti, the ubiquitous, cable-news-friendly attorney who represents Daniels, released bank records of payments to Cohen’s LLC. Those named were clearly caught flat-footed.

Responding to embarrassing news – in real time

AT&T tried to get away with a terse statement that explained the contract as gaining “insights” into the new administration, stressing that the LLC “did no legal or lobbying work for us, and the contract ended in December 2017.”

That wasn’t enough. Before long the company acknowledged the full amount of the payments — $600,000, not $200,000 as initially reported. Yet the explanation was opaque and not particularly credible. It described the deal as related to its need to understand “a wide range of policy issues,” including “regulatory reform at the FCC, corporate tax reform and antitrust enforcement.”

Cohen is a New York lawyer with a background in real estate, not regulatory reform or tax policy. The skepticism around its explanation must have been obvious to AT&T. Social media was ablaze with speculation that the payments represented a quid pro quo related to its planned multibillion-dollar merger with Time Warner. The company followed up quickly with a more candid admission. It explained that the relationship was “to pay for an understanding of the inner workings of Trump.” The statement added that it had been contacted in late 2017 by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office and had “cooperated fully.” Talk about burying the lead.

As with many rushed public responses, AT&T’s handling of the situation was not very skillful. It would have fared better with a single, fuller explanation of the relationship, even if it had come later. While no response can sugar-coat the fact it paid a wholly unqualified “fixer” such large sums, it’s not unusual for corporations to engage people with ties to an incoming administration. They might also have reminded us that Trump’s election was a surprise that caught many companies unprepared, and that they were naturally looking for an entrée.

An “off-day” for rapid response and messaging

Novartis fared worse in its public response to the story. As one broadcaster put it, “Whoever’s been handling their public relations on this matter has been having an off-day.”
No kidding. Its first statement assured us that the $1.2 million Cohen contract was written under the prior Novartis CEO, not the current chief executive. It was defensive and woefully incomplete.

Apparently realizing this, Novartis launched into the same real-time updating mode that AT&T adopted. It released new information describing the Cohen contract as a way to learn how the new administration “approached healthcare policy” and disclosed that it, too, had been questioned by the Special Counsel. Overall, the update raised more questions than it answered.
Novartis asserted that after meeting Cohen, the company realized that he “would be unable to provide the services that Novartis had anticipated.” Yet it didn’t end the contract because, the company claimed, it “could only be terminated for cause.”

Really? Novartis is a $50 billion, publicly traded corporation. Who commits to a seven-figure engagement where no satisfactory work can be delivered, and with no termination option? How is that a good use of corporate funds? And why bring the CEO into it in the first place? At a company their size, the chief executive isn’t likely to approve such agreements. The whole thing smelled like a clumsy attempt to explain away a reactive and embarrassing business investment.  It’s particularly ill-chosen because Novartis isn’t a stranger to reputation problems. Just three years ago it suffered a scandal over kickbacks to specialty pharmacies and ended up settling with the DOJ for $390 million.

Its best update on the Cohen mess may have been the final release of an employee email by CEO Vas Narasimhan. “We made a mistake in entering into this engagement,”admitted Narasimhan. He alludes to his personal distress over the situation and ends by rallying the troops around its “noble purpose” to impact human health. He urges employees to “remain resilient and keep your focus on serving patients.”

The internal communication is a more appropriate use of the C-level voice, and although you can quibble with the personal tone in the note, it is heartfelt. More importantly, it acknowledges the error, explains it briefly, and pledges to do better. And maybe if both AT&T and Novartis had slowed down and followed that playbook at the outset, they’d be better off today. But stay tuned; there may be more to this story yet.