Remedy’s Jim Curtis Talks Beating Chronic Illness With Fast Company

Client Remedy Health Media’s “chief storytelling officer” Jim Curtis learned the importance of telling your story by… not telling his. As he details in his interview with Fast Company’s Lydia Dishman, Curtis suffers from mysterious chronic pain that he concealed for many years while on Wall Street.

It was only after joining Remedy Health in 2010 that he began to open up about his illness – which turned everything around. He introduced the idea of patients’ telling their stories and sharing their experiences, invigorating the HealthCentral online community. You can read more about Curtis’ inspiring story in his book The Stimulati Experience.

How Not To Apologize

Terrible explanations for terrible behavior are perversely fascinating — especially to PRs and professional communicators. They’re also instructive. It takes a well-crafted and sincere apology to explain away repugnant speech or actions, and even the best mea culpas can fall short. But lately there have been some doozies.

In an episode unlikely to be matched anytime in the near future, former Georgia state representative Jason Spencer was videotaped dropping his pants and screaming racial epithets while running backwards for the Sacha Baron Cohen show “Who is America?”.  Baron Cohen, of course, is a notorious prankster who specializes in making people look ridiculous. And in this show he’s unrecognizable posing as an Israeli anti-terrorism expert (props to the makeup crew.) But Spencer’s initial response to the video’s release was that he did it because he was afraid for his life. That’s right, he claimed that his “fears (of terrorists) were so heightened” that he was unable to think clearly or understand what he was doing. (He sure doesn’t look scared in his bare-assed scamper; he looks ridiculous.)

Jason Spencer’s pranking is so bizarre that no apology would have sufficed, so his resignation was inevitable. But the “terrorists made me do it” defense adds an extra dimension of humiliation to his exit. He would have been better off with an explanation that took responsibility for his little escapade. Something like, “The people behind the show set out to make me look like a racist fool, and I stupidly complied. Fortunately the only person I truly harmed was myself.”

In a slightly less outrageous instance, Papa John’s founder John Schnatter is embroiled in a public fight with company officers after he, too, apparently used the n-word during a media training session with a marketing agency. Schnatter stepped away from the company and apologized, yet even as he did so, he insisted that the agency team had coerced him to utter the word. (He later claimed the agency CEO blackmailed him over the comment, and the situation has devolved further since the initial apology.)

It seems improbable that an agency coaching an executive on better interview techniques would urge him to blurt out a racist slur. But even if true, why would Schnatter comply? After all, he’s a brash entrepreneur who’s never been afraid to go his own way. He’s the client. The boss. It’s not reasonable to blame his behavior on someone else, and it undermines the initial apology and whatever is left of his public reputation. His explanation prolonged the story and did him no credit.

We see this kind of whataboutism and finger-pointing in CEOs, politicians (including the president, of course), and entertainers. But here’s the bottom line: the worse the offense, the better and more sincere the apology must be. Blaming others, even when justified, just isn’t a good look. Taking responsibility is step one in an effective public apology. It shouldn’t be that hard.
Image result for khloe kardashian retard
As a contrast, look at Khloe Kardashian’s tweeted apology after she called sister Kourtney a “retard” on an Instagram livestream. Her offense may not rise to the level of others here, and her tweet isn’t very articulate or dignified. But in her swift and simple response, Kardashian agrees, owns the mistake, and pledges to be better. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

The Boldest PR Moves of 2018

The first half of 2018 has seen some remarkable corporate PR maneuvers. In many cases, well-known companies have come up with creative ways to take a stand or respond to a public challenge. Some of the moves are arguable, but all were bold, even risky. Some brands spoke out in response to crises, while others may have created crises by speaking out. Only time will tell if these maneuvers are true PR wins or losses, but here’s our take.

The boldest PR moves of 2018 — so far

WeWork: virtue signaling or corporate activism?

Two weeks ago office coworking company WeWork announced that, for environmental reasons, it will not serve meat inside its facilities, nor will employees be allowed to expense client dinners that include meat. Many have lauded WeWork’s green initiative. But some media have responded with charges of “tribalism,” “virtue signaling,” and “imposing a worldview” on employees. The WeWork move can be compared to Starbucks’ recent banning of plastic straws, but it’s attention-grabbing because it’s more extreme.

If publicity was the goal, then WeWork certainly accomplished it. The announcement generated scores of articles and lots of discussion on social media. (Some critics, like the Texas meat processors who spoke out against the measure, may not even have been aware of WeWork’s existence until recently.) Not all coverage was positive, but there’s an advantage to being top-of-mind, even if the move was driven as much by PR as by its values. As one journalist cynically put it, WeWork is “a real estate business trying to look like a tech startup.” In that case, the meat ban was probably smart branding.
Image result for ambien response to roseanne

Ambien is woke

Ambien’s parent company Sanofi seized the opportunity to react after the brand was mentioned by Roseanne Barr as an excuse for a repugnant tweet that resulted in her show’s cancellation. Barr tried to blame her racist posts on “ambien tweeting,” but the brand fired back that “racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.” The witty clapback won plaudits, possibly because it was a measured response. Ignoring the post would open the brand to questions about the drug’s effects, or its attitude toward Barr’s tweet, while a formal press statement would have been heavy-handed. Instead, the agile response expressed corporate values without much risk. Ambien scored a big bang-for-your-buck PR win by listening and reacting with authority and humor. See the earlier post for more on the best reactive PR opportunities.

Delta sticks to its guns

Delta made some high-stakes enemies when it announced it would discontinue its policy of NRA member discounts after the Parkland shootings in February. Once again the substance behind the communications was minimal (only a few NRA members were actually affected), but the message spoke about Delta’s corporate values. Third-party influencers on both sides lined up and duked it out.
Despite losing a major $40 million tax break in Georgia, Delta stood its ground in the face of significant blowback. Delta’s sincerity here can’t really be questioned, given that it knew there would likely be political static in its home state. The value of the reputation boost from its decisive social activism may offset other financial losses. Delta scored a PR win with its strong and sincere social stand. See this earlier post for more on the Delta-NRA episode.

Philip Morris throws flames

In a fascinating and daring PR move, last week tobacco giant Philip Morris sent a letter to the head of England’s national healthcare organization, the NHS (National Health risky PR moves of 2018Service), offering to partner on an initiative to help NHS staff quit smoking by offering smoke-free products like e-cigarettes. The NHS, of course, is not open to a partnership with a tobacco company, but its indignant reaction probably gave Philip Morris exactly what it hoped — more publicity.
Its trolling of the NHS was probably a tactic in support of its larger “smoke free” PR blitz launched in early 2018. Beginning with its new year’s “We’re trying to give up cigarettes” full-page ads, PMI is revamping its portfolio and its positioning. The negative publicity about its arguably outrageous offer to the NHS had the effect of spreading the word widely about the new campaign.

NFL’s position doesn’t stand

In May the NFL chose a side on the divisive issue of player protests during the national anthem – or at least, it thought so. The league announced it would require players to stand if they are on the field during the anthem, giving them the option of remaining in the locker room. The policy would fine team for players who stand or kneel during the anthem, essentially leaving it up to the teams to pass on the fines to players or absorb them. The announcement reignited the NFL anthem protest controversy, drawing verbal fire from all sides. Worse, last week it became moot after a Miami Dolphins “discipline document” was leaked to the press. The document states that players could be suspended up to four games for an anthem protest, and it quickly created a PR nightmare for the team and the NFL.

Maybe the league was hoping to control the conversation and stir public sentiment against the players. But had the NFL held off on the May policy announcement, it might have nudged its reputation in a more positive zone as the story died down. Instead, the league has consistently elected to go the PR path of most resistance, reinforcing an image of a dysfunctional organization lacking leadership.

When A Founder Does PR Damage

For a fast-growing startup, a dynamic founder can be a huge PR asset. A charismatic entrepreneur is the face of his brand, its best media spokesperson, and the embodiment of its values. The most talented can attract a top workforce and inspire it to achieve beyond expectations. From Steve Jobs to Marc Benioff, the examples of PR-savvy founders are varied, but they share many of the same attributes.

Have charisma, will backfire

But what happens when the founder’s impact turns toxic? Take the recent soap opera unfolding around Papa John’s founder John Schnatter.  Forced to resign as chairman of the business he started after an ugly, racially-tinged episode came to light, Schnatter is fighting back. He’s now blaming the marketing agency involved in a media training session for goading him into uttering a racist word. Although Papa John’s has recovered a bit from a stock price drop right after the scandal broke, nothing about this is good for the brand or the business. Who can focus on competitors when the founder is his own – and the company’s – worst enemy?

Elon Musk also made waves with a self-inflicted PR crisis this week — this one on a more global scale. Musk was enjoying mostly positive coverage after his company’s prototype submarine became a sidebar as a possible aid in the rescue of the boys trapped in the Thailand cave. Happily, the sub wasn’t needed for the rescue, but when one of the cave divers criticized it as a “PR stunt,” Musk exploded. He tweeted an angry response and called the diver a “pedo.” The insult to a true hero of the high-stakes rescue naturally brought a furious backlash. Musk walked back his comment and deleted the tweets, but the tantrum startled investors and caused a temporary drop in the share price of Tesla, Musk’s troubled electric car company.

It’s the Travis Kalanick problem. Sometimes the very qualities that lead an entrepreneur to achieve extraordinary success can spell trouble as a company matures. When it comes to taking on the risks and obstacles involved in scaling a world-class business, brazen self-regard and iron confidence are useful. But when confidence metastasizes into arrogance and self-interest, the company’s reputation – even its very survival — can be placed in jeopardy.

Boards must wrangle renegade founders

So, what’s the answer? In most cases it falls to Board members and investors to wrangle a toxic founder before things go irretrievably bad. Gene Munster, founder of VC firm Loup Ventures, offers relevant advice in an open letter to Elon Musk following the cave diver episode. Munster advises Musk to ignore short sellers and reminds him that the perception of “think-skinned and short-tempered” leadership is not helpful to his company.

Thankfully, the road to regaining investor confidence is well traveled. It starts with an apology. Then, focus your message on your progress toward achieving Tesla’s mission. You might consider taking a Twitter sabbatical. Twitter might keep Tesla in the news but it won’t help continued improvements in production and product.

Board members, officers, and investors have a critical responsibility here, and one’s that’s increasingly being scrutinized among venture-backed tech companies as well as others. The Theranos fraud showed the consequences of a board that’s overly credulous, asleep at the controls, or badly chosen.

There are always warning signs. A deeper look into Papa John’s reveals a company that in the words of one former employee, is a “public company operated like it is privately owned.” Founder Schnatter has a history of controversy; he resigned under pressure in 2005, only to return three years later to install cronies in top company and board positions. The red flags were there.
Real leadership means making the proper corrections or ultimately the painful changes that can ensure a successful company’s survival, even if that means the guy who started it is the one who needs to go.

PR Guide to Stellar Briefing Books

The practice of public relations is seen as a creative one, but it often depends on meticulous preparation. The PR briefing book is no exception; it’s a simple tool, yet a critical asset for a brand spokesperson to prepare for media interviews. The best briefing books offer a go-to reference and “study guide” so an interviewee has full background on the reporter, the outlet, and the best messaging for the opportunity.

PR guide to stellar briefing books

Make it easy on the eyes

Since the interviewee may be reviewing the document on the fly while in transit or during the interview(s), it should be well structured and easy to read. The when, where, who, and the featured topic should be scannable at the top of the document. If the executive is talking to multiple journalists, the briefing book should have a table of contents, an interview schedule grid, and the top three recommended messages for each exchange (different journalists may focus on different story angles.) Also essential are the reporter’s background information, a description of his publication, and any relevant preferences for the meeting.

The message is the medium

The most important parts of the briefing book are the messaging and questions sections. Although the PR team will have thoroughly prepped the spokesperson, they will also outline potential questions and recommended points for response. It’s generally impossible to predict a journalist’s questions with 100% accuracy, but sample queries can give the spokesperson a degree of comfort that makes for a smoother dialogue. Additionally, briefing documents should include an “expected outcome” outlining the desired next steps.

Briefing books shouldn’t contain sensitive material

In 2016, Gizmodo got ahold of a stray email thread from a Microsoft employee that included some highly detailed “dossiers” about journalists. While not patently nefarious, the documents included a rather deep dive into journalists’ predilections, including a “tips and tricks” section (presumably to handle or outwit reporters) and information on some reporters’ strong personal opinions about competitive products. The article’s author also found it “creepy” that the briefings included photos of the reporters.

We at Crenshaw Communications do not have a “tips & tricks” section, but we do offer headshots  – simply to put a name to a face. We also include the reporter’s three most recent and relevant articles and their Twitter handles, offering a glimpse into the style and beat of the journalists. But it goes without saying that you shouldn’t put anything in a medium briefing book that you wouldn’t want the reporter to see. (On the more nefarious front, in 2015 Columbia Journalism Review uncovered a company called NewsBios that sold reporter dossiers to PR pros. These dossiers contained some genuinely sensitive biographical information like home addresses and names of pets. Not recommended.)

Aside from the document itself, the PR pros will also brief the interviewee on the reporter’s general style based on previous experience. On the other side of the table, the PR contact will often supply the reporter with background on the spokesperson if they’re not acquainted.

Though a relatively small and tactical piece in the PR puzzle, a well-constructed briefing book  is an indispensable media relations roadmap. See last week’s post for a deeper dive into PR facilitation of media interviews.

What’s PR’s Role In The Media Interview?

Should a PR person participate in client media interviews? Most would say yes, but that participation is usually limited. In most cases it means the PR rep helps the client prepare for a media interview opportunity in advance, offers background to the journalist, and accompanies the client to the meeting as a largely silent partner.

Few professionals advocate for interrupting or stopping an interview midstream, or shouting objections like a defense attorney. After all, our goals include maintaining good relations with journalists whom we will inevitably need to approach for future opportunities.

Yet sometimes the lines blur. The job of a PR pro is to help control the narrative. When does that mean controlling an interview? If an experienced spokesperson says too much or blurts out the wrong thing on the record, should the PR rep step in to correct it?

The PR role in media interviews

It’s routine for a PR person to dial in to a phone interview or accompany a client to an in-person meeting. The PR rep can facilitate the exchange by making introductions and setting ground rules, supplying information when needed, prompting if something is missed, and generally acting as a second set of eyes and ears. And in the case of a mistake, a quick correction is invaluable. Most clients welcome the presence of their PR rep, particularly if they’re hyperconscious about speaking on the record. If the client is misquoted or if the interview doesn’t come out well, the PR person was there to help (or to vouch for them.) As for journalists, most accept the presence of a PR professional as long as they stay in their lane and don’t interfere.

When PR derails the interview

There’s that unspoken rule in public relations that PR practitioners should never be part of the story. Our role is behind the scenes, and most professionals are more comfortable there. But there are exceptions. In a famous 2009 episode, televangelist Benny Hinn conducts a rare interview with ABC’s Nightline in which reporter Dan Harris grills him about his lavish lifestyle. Hinn’s PR counsel Ronn Torossian can be heard from off-camera at multiple points during the eight-minute segment, occasionally protesting and urging Harris to mention his client’s newly released book.
Torossian’s conduct would seem embarrassing, and it’s interesting that the network didn’t edit out his interruptions. But in this case his protests give his client the opportunity to play the good cop. Hinn insists on taking reporter Harris’s questions in the spirit of transparency. The exchange actually makes him look like an earnest guy who has nothing to hide. Was there a method to the madness? Who knows?

Celebrity PR as referee is a mixed blessing

Celebrity interviews can be different from those in corporate or brand PR in many ways. There, the publicist often takes the role as interview cop, especially with a reporter they deem overly aggressive. In 2009, Robert Pattinson’s publicist pulled the plug on a short interview with Ryan Seacrest after Seacrest asked a question about the actor’s relationship with then-girlfriend and co-star Kristen Stewart. The publicist was trying to protect the interests of her client, who apparently did not want to talk about his relationship. should pr interfere in media interviewsBut in this instance, the PR pro’s on-camera demeanor made Pattinson look a bit helpless and pampered. After all, personal relationships are part of the game, and if Seacrest didn’t agree to ground rules barring the topic, why wouldn’t he mention it? Pattinson laughs off the awkwardness gracefully, but he should have brushed off the question for himself.

Crisis PR needs a steady partner

In a crisis situation, the media spokesperson may face the toughest of PR challenges. In these cases a misplaced or misunderstood phrase can result in reputation and/or fiscal damage, deepening the existing crisis. Here it makes sense for a trained communications or legal professional to accompany any media spokesperson in a high-stakes interview, and journalists expect it as well. See our earlier post for a PR view of CEO apologies.

Overall a PR professional walks a fine line between skillful management of a situation and undesirable interference. PR people act as facilitators, diplomats, and counselors, and the two most important factors in such situations are typically those that are earned over years of practice — experience and good judgment.

What Happens After The Reporter Says Yes?

Seeing a client’s interview in a key publication is still a quintessential public relations win, so PR pros spend a lot of time perfecting media pitching. But once we get a “yes” to a pitch or interview request, it’s no time to sit back and relax. What happens next is arguably more important than what came before. To maximize the impact of earned coverage, the media relations pro must master the pitch, the interview, and the promotion of the story.

What happens after the reporter says yes?

Nail it down, fast

A good PR person will immediately schedule the interview and send a confirmation to all parties. This may not be as easy as it sounds given travel schedules and other commitments, but it’s important to seize the opportunity. If a reporter ends up postponing the interview, take it in stride, but do your best to ensure that the client won’t.

Always overprepare

If the reporter is unfamiliar with the interviewee or the company, the PR person will offer introductory information, naturally. But never assume the journalist will take the time to read the background provided, or that he will stick to suggested questions. (Many journalists prefer not to offer questions in advance, and even if they do, things change.) The main job of the PR person at this point is to control every aspect she can, from the client briefing down to the conference line chosen for the interview. (Don’t laugh; in a busy agency, it’s easy to double-book the same line for two calls!)  The PR team will offer interview prep in the form of a briefing document that offers background on the journalist, previous stories, interests, and a summary of goals and recommended message points for the interview. Check our earlier post for best PR tips on media interviews.

Join the interview

The PR person will typically join the reporter and the executive on the call (or in person) to make sure all goes smoothly and to troubleshoot anything that may come up. Journalists don’t always welcome the PR rep’s participation, but it’s standard, and it’s commonly part of our job. It’s not typical, however, for the PR person to interfere or interrupt the interview unless something goes awry. Any problem topics, questions, or areas of doubt should be cleared up beforehand; the journalist is there for the interview, not to struggle to get questions answered. But the job is still not done once the piece is published.

Post-mortem

We like to send a note recapping the interview and offering constructive suggestions for improvement, if relevant. It’s a good client service tip, and it may help a reluctant or meandering spokesperson to stick to what is most pertinent for future interviews. It’s also important to pass on any feedback offered by the journalist. In tech PR, it sometimes happens that a client executive gets too far into the weeds or assumes an unrealistic level of technical knowledge by the reporter, so good criticism is valuable.

What happens after the story publishes?

How did we do?

Once the article or segment is live, both parties evaluate it for accuracy; it’s not uncommon for there to be small errors in names, titles, or other details. Most journalists are very open to making factual corrections, and it pays to act fast, because the life of a story may be short. Most importantly, the PR agency and client will assess whether the story helped accomplished their objectives and how to merchandise it to key audiences.

PR leverage and amplification

Time to leverage the win. The company and its PR partner will amplify the article on all owned media, starting with social channels. It may be added to the website newsroom feed, distributed to contacts in email marketing, or occasionally in paid advertising. The PR agency can help by sharing major stories on its own social channels and website. And why not give your sales department more ammunition to close leads in the form of the earned credibility that a positive media placement provides? For six ways to amplify media outcomes, see this earlier post.

Make it snowball!

A positive feature or compelling interview tends to generate additional media interest. In the B2B PR realm, larger publications can pick up trade journal placements, which carry a lot of clout. While this may happen organically, it’s advisable to be proactive in pursuit of snowballing coverage. The PR team can pitch a similar story in another context or a follow-up story to other outlets that won’t compete directly with the original story. The story can be pitched targeting media in another vertical, or the agency may approach a broadcast outlet in the wake of a print story. It’s important to ride the wave of media momentum as far as it can possibly go.

PR measures up

After garnering a major piece of earned media in a key publication, amplifying and snowballing, the PR team wants to know how much it moved the needle on goals like awareness and lead generation. Clearly it’s best to have metrics established in advance as well as access to data like a client’s web analytics. Different companies will have different budgets, priorities, and methods for quantifying earned media coverage. See our earlier practical guide to measuring PR outcomes for advice on evaluating earned media as well as progress against big-picture PR goals.

The Thai Cave Rescue And The Power Of Storytelling

Until they were located, I’d no idea that 12 boys and their coach were trapped in a flooded cave in northern Thailand. But once the news broke, I was hooked. And I wasn’t alone. The national fascination tells us something about PR, storytelling, and ourselves.

Why was the plight of the stranded Thai boys so compelling? As many noted, there are children in danger everywhere, from Syria to Syracuse. Some journalists questioned the news judgment that placed a higher priority on the cave rescue than those who were lost when a tourist boat capsized right off the Thailand coast. Others invoked the migrant children separated from their families at the border here.

“One of the jarring things about the Thai cave story: 41 people died when a boat capsized in Thailand on Thursday evening and nobody really cared. It’s a pretty clear illustration of how we latch onto stories that are gripping while ignoring worse human suffering that lacks drama.”

The heroes’ journey – and long odds

So, how were the Thai students different? In the Poynter Institute blog, writer Roy Peter Clark offers a compelling analysis of our collective fascination. While his post points out how the cave narrative conforms to some storytelling archetypes (and primal fears), it also notes the many ways in which it departs from classic storytelling. For example, for most of us the cave story didn’t offer either proximity or “prominence” – the involvement of well-known personalities (though I’d argue that Elon Musk lent some celebrity cachet to the whole thing.) The lack of proximity actually worked against it. In fact, a frustrating aspect of the unfolding news story was the number of inaccurate and conflicting reports; even major news networks got it wrong, presumably due to the geographical and time zone challenges.

But overall, the Thai cave rescue did involve a powerful archetype. People now say that it was simply a “good news” story, but we didn’t know how things would turn out. In essence, it was a typical adventure tale — but with a twist. At the point where most stories would have ended well – the boys’ being discovered by British divers after nine days of searching – the cave narrative was just beginning. When we realized the rescue would be risky, complicated, and perhaps impossible, everything changed. At that point it became a classic hero’s journey  – with the heroes being not the lost boys, but the teams of rescuers who risked their lives to bring the kids to safety. Shades of baby Jessica in the well.

That’s not all. Ultimately, our fascination with the Thai cave rescue may come down to those intangibles that are scarce in today’s media and social environment. The first is hope against long odds. A human David was up against a Goliath of immense and terrifying natural power. In the face of worsening conditions and sudden setbacks —  imminent downpours, declining oxygen levels inside the cave, and the death of an experienced volunteer, we weren’t confident of the outcome, but were hoping to see light at the end of a tunnel.

The other part of the cave story was that it instantly brought about something else we’ve been missing — a sense of unity. Let’s face it, each day brings divisive political reports, real and fake outrage over news events and social media reaction, and unrelenting punditry about the state of our disunion. As we waited for news out of Chiang Rai, for once, for a few days at least, we were all rooting for the same team.

5 Reasons PR Agency Relationships Fail

Nobody enters into a PR agency partnership thinking it will fail, just like no one gets married thinking they may one day divorce.

But inevitably, some relationships do fail. They may simply run their course, or there may be external factors that dictate change. But when client-agency partnerships end prematurely, there are often avoidable factors involved. Here are some of the key reasons for the early demise of an agency-client relationship.

Why do some agency relationships fail?

Fuzzy goals or vague expectations

This is probably the single biggest reason why PR agency relationships go wrong. Most clients articulate their goals when they bring on a PR agency, of course. Yet unless those objectives are spelled out clearly and they are measurable, they can mean different things to each party. If the goals are vague, hard to quantify, or if they differ among different stakeholders in the client company, that’s a red flag. “Increased visibility,” “generating coverage,” or building “brand buzz” simply aren’t clear enough for evaluation of outcomes. It’s far better to define desirable outcomes as clearly as possible and to tie them to applicable metrics like website visits, share of voice, or customer acquisition.

Always saying “yes” is a no-no

The ideal relationship between agency and client is a full collaboration in which the agency pushes back or calls for course corrections when necessary. As detailed in things your PR firm should tell you, the agency should ideally identify challenges and speak up about its needs before the agreement is signed. Sometimes the agency needs to be prepared to push back when the client feels strongly about questionable ideas. Avoiding confrontation may not ruin a relationship right away, but it will not serve the client’s best interests over the longer run. Honest conversations, on the other hand, lead to more trust – and a fruitful client-agency collaboration.

Talent turnover

Nobody likes turnover, and the PR industry, like many creative services, is grappling with employee churn. U.S. PR agencies reported turnover rates of 22% in 2016, according to Gould+Partners. Worse, only 56% of clients believed that agencies have the right talent to meet client needs over the next two years (PRCA In-House Benchmarking Report). Today’s tech economy is flourishing, and the U.S. unemployment rate is low, so agencies must fight to garner and keep the best young talent. If a PR firm cannot maintain its quality and consistent service, then it’s headed for a #PRfail.

The agency model

A smart marketer once said that the problem with her industry is that ad agencies charge for time, not value. The same can be said for many PR agencies. Most are compensated for time and expertise, and there are good reasons for that. But staff time spent on a given agency account doesn’t guarantee success. Again, there must be a focus on progress against outcomes, on adding value for the client. An agency that seems overly concerned with its hours, that loads up meetings with billable staff, or that simply can’t seem to commit to reasonable goals may simply be a poor choice. And while there are many billing mechanisms that are fine for different clients and projects, it’s the agency’s attitude that dictates the long term success of the partnership.

PR relationships are about communications

That’s an obvious one, right? Yet it’s a sad irony that PR agency relationships sometimes founder because of poor communications. It may be due to time pressures, fragmented contact over email, Slack or through digital drive-bys, or a failure to standardize client communications throughout the account team. Most of all, it’s up to agencies not to take the relationship for granted. The late Al Golin said of his agency’s 60-year relationship with flagship client McDonald’s, “Somebody from (the client) once said to me that the reason we’ve been successful is because we’ve always treated them like we just got them, like they were a brand new client.” Good advice.

"Doors" Goes Viral, Opens Up A Race

Sometimes a story is so strong that all you need to do is tell it and get out of the way. Improving on a good thing can be tricky, because there’s always the risk of over-embellishing. Too much PR or packaging can overwhelm an emotional punch.

“Doors,” the remarkable ad by Texas congressional candidate MJ Hegar, manages to take a great story and improve it in the telling. Chances are you’ve already seen it, but if not, check it out. The three-minute digital video has racked up over four million views since its release last month. Only half those views are from YouTube; the other nearly two million are from the earned media and interviews it has generated in the mainstream press. I hate the word “viral” but it was coined for occasions like this.

“Doors” works on many levels. It grabs you at the start because of Hegar’s battlefield story. Against an opening guitar chord that sounds a lot like “Gimme Shelter,” we meet Hegar as a search-and-rescue pilot in Afghanistan. Her experience is a true hero’s journey; Hegar’s medevac helicopter was shot down by the Taliban and in the moments before crashing, wounded in her rifle arm, she managed to return fire from the moving copter. She received the Distinguished Flying Cross and a Purple Heart for her bravery.

Top that if you can. But the brilliance of the narrative is that the military conflict echoes past struggles — like that of Hegar’s mom with her abusive husband. It’s also the preamble to her second great battle – to overturn the ban on women serving in ground combat. Hegar sued the Pentagon to change the policy, and in 2012, she won.

The theme ties Hegar’s personal narrative to the vision she shares for the community. She’s a true underdog, a Democratic woman working to unseat a 15–year incumbent in a deep-red Texas district. She aims not just to open doors for herself – but to kick them down for others. (No glass-ceiling mentions necessary.)

Best of all, the ad isn’t divisive or even particularly partisan. In our ultra-tribal environment, it’s a pretty universal message. Hegar smartly doesn’t challenge the incumbent on issues or policy beyond the combat ban. Instead, she accuses him of not listening, of literally closing the door on constituents who aren’t donors. The imagery is perfect.

That’s where the real power of “Doors” invites you in. For a story to hit home, we need to identify with the experience depicted. And who hasn’t felt ignored by someone in authority? Most can’t relate to Hegar’s combat experience, but we’ve all feared the door closing on us. Women especially know how it feels to be discounted by someone who thinks you’re just not important enough to be worth their time.

Part returning hero, part David vs Goliath, and one hundred percent authentic, “Doors” has clearly opened up a long-shot congressional race. And for PR people and other professional communicators, it’s a reminder that in the right hands, a great story can always get better.