Crenshaw Welcomes New Team Members

Crenshaw welcomes 3 new team members
Todd Wasserman, Caroline Yodice, Erica Schain

The Crenshaw team expanded by three in the fourth quarter of 2019!

Erica Schain joined as Account Supervisor, having returned to the U.S. after working in Israel for several years, most recently for Headline Media. Erica has an undeniable passion for technology, people, and writing; and brings a proven track record of successfully executing PR and branding strategies to Crenshaw.

Senior Account Executive Caroline Yodice brings considerable experience in digital media and adtech to Crenshaw. Caroline eats, drinks, and sleeps adtech — and can be found reading the trades in her spare time.

Veteran journalist Todd Wasserman joined as technology writer, having spent an award-winning career writing and reporting for Mashable, the Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. We are very pleased to have his wealth of experience in covering advertising and social media.

The PR Losers Of 2018

Against the backdrop of an ever-faster news cycle, 2018 has featured brands and personalities who seized unexpected opportunities to generate positive PR.

By the same token, 2018 has brought public disasters for others. Which stories captivated us in 2018, and who came out where? Here’s part one of my list for 2018 PR Winners and Losers. Let’s get the bad news out of the way first.

Facebook just can’t catch a break

It’s on every communications professional’s “worst” list. In 2018, past misdeeds caught up with Facebook. After the Cambridge Analytica scandal exploded, CEO Mark Zuckerberg embarked on an apology tour, capped off with a cautious, contrite, and highly rehearsed performance before a Senate Committee in April. It was a detente of sorts, but the calm didn’t last. In November, The New York Times broke a blockbuster story based on three years’ worth of insider accounts of Facebook’s handling of the scandal. Its strategies were right there in the title — Delay, Deny, and Deflect. Even COO Sheryl Sandberg, who some have seen as a future presidential candidate, was badly tarnished by the piece. At a time when Big Tech’s reputation has plummeted, Facebook is a convenient scapegoat for an entire industry, but many of its problems are of its own making. There have been too many apologies that later rang hollow, and its bank of good will is nearly empty.

The NRA retrenches

Though controversial, the National Rifle Association has long been considered an indomitable PR force. Its aggressive stance on any and every issue related to gun ownership rights, coupled with its lobbying clout, made it a feared competitor. But 2018 brought a sharp reversal in its fortunes and its public image. The problems started with the activism that grew out of the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas high school. The Parkland students mounted a PR-savvy campaign to register young voters and focus attention on sensible gun legislation. What’s more, 2018 ended with a guilty plea by Maria Butina, the young Russian who allegedly tried to influence U.S. policy by infiltrating conservative groups, most notably the NRA, by posing as gun-rights activist in her own country. The story’s not over yet, but a willingness to stake out a middle ground on the firearms issue might have softened its critics. But as it stands now, the NRA will end the year with an eroding membership and declining revenues.

CBS has a #metoo moment (again)

The Tiffany network was again rocked by an unfolding scandal related to workplace sexual harassment. This time it claimed the job of network chief Les Moonves, costing Moonves his $120 million severance package and the network its reputation. In fact, CBS barely had a chance to recoup after its most recent #metoo scandal. The revelations that Moonves actively obstructed the investigation into claims that he sexually harassed and even assaulted employees came nearly a year after CBS fired Charlie Rose for sexual harassment. Worse, it seems that at least one CBS Board member knew about the allegations but said nothing. The mess just goes to show that most secrets don’t stay hidden forever, and that corporate cover-ups rarely stay that way. It’s usually best to expose all the bad news at once.

Scandal engulfs McKinsey

2018 was a regular annus horribilis for the blue-chip consulting firm. McKinsey was embroiled in a corruption and cronyism scandal in South Africa that nearly wiped out its business in the region. It even returned the $70 million in fees earned for the engagement due to widespread outrage over the “looting” of the South African economy. In June, the consulting giant announced it would no longer work for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after the relationship became controversial among its own staff. A third reputation hit came in October with yet another investigative piece about its work in Saudia Arabia. Though it broke no laws, its representation of controversial clients has at best shown an inconsistent adherence to its own stated corporate values.

Tesla hits a wall

What to do when a company’s greatest asset – its founder – is also its biggest PR liability? That’s the dilemma Tesla faced this year when founder Elon Musk made news with a series of erratic moves in two-month period. In July Musk lashed out at one of the divers who helped rescue 12 Thai soccer players from flooded caves this summer, precipitating a wave of negative stories and a libel suit. Weeks later, he claimed in a series of tweets that he had secured funding to take Tesla private, startling investors and employees and triggering an SEC action and more litigation. As if that weren’t enough, in early September, Tesla shares nosedived and two senior officers resigned just hours after Musk smoked marijuana on a live web show. Despite its founder’s shenanigans, however, Tesla ended the year strongly, so here’s hoping it can stay on track in 2019.

Papa John’s feels the heat

Mercurial founders aren’t only in technology startups. Scandals burned pizza chain Papa John’s after founder John Schnatter’s use of a racial epithet during a phone meeting that was meant to be a media prep call, of all things.  Schnatter was ousted by Papa John’s board, but he sued his former company, and the result has been a mess of toxic PR for the brand. Apparently company franchisees are divided about Schnatter’s status, and his ouster precipitated more ugly disclosures, including at least two NDAs signed by women who accused the pizza king of sexual harassment.
“I am the American dream,” Schnatter once said in describing his company’s success. But in 2018, his behavior was a nightmare for the brand he created.

Kevin Spacey is “frankly” creepy

Thought we could close out 2018 without another #metoo moment? Think again. On Christmas eve, actor Kevin Spacey released a very strange video that may – or may not – have been a response to disturbing sexual assault allegations against him. His “frank” remarks were delivered in full villain mode as “House of Cards” antihero Frank Underwood and have generated over seven million views (more than any single season’s audience of the show).  Yet it was not a great PR move. In the video, Spacey seems to be urging his fans to look at his offenses the same way they do the murderous deeds of the character he played. Judging by the reaction on social media, most don’t buy it. Also caught in the turmoil was Netflix, which almost certainly had no advance warning of the video.

Mnuchin makes the wrong call

Another late-breaking PR crisis happened on when Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin attempted to calm financial markets after the government shutdown and a wildly gyrating DJIA. In a letter posted on Twitter, Mnuchin reported that he had held a call with major bank CEOs and denied a “brewing economic crisis no one knows about,” as Salon’s Matthew Rozda put it. The letter stated that “the (bank) CEOs confirmed that they have ample liquidity…for lending to consumer, business markets, and all other market operations.”
The problem, of course, was that no one was really worried about a liquidity crisis, so the call seemed like a panic move and backfired badly, helping to send the stock market spiraling further downward. It’s the classic “never deny a negative” rule; if you don’t want your target audience to worry about an unlikely development, try not to mention it.

Next up: PR Winners: The Best Stories of 2018

10 New Year’s Resolutions For Better PR Campaigns

The beginning of a new year brings a turning-the-page feeling of renewal. While we had a wonderful 2018, now feels like the right time to refresh and refocus our efforts for an even better 2019. In PR, we’re getting ready to clear an ever-rising bar. Sometimes you just need to remember the fundamentals. Other times, it’s good to take things into fresh directions.

10 resolutions for better PR in 2019

Keep it real

When the PR team is deep in brainstorming mode, it’s easy to lose one’s grounding. When conceiving a new PR program, resolve to make sure it’s built on substance. Formulate the program in a way that is not only creative and original, but that can actually move the needle for the most relevant audiences. Build a program that does something real, and the publicity around it will be generated more easily.

Get experiential

A study by event success software provider Bizzabo indicates that 62% of senior marketers plan on investing more in live events in 2019. We also know that Millennials (and all consumers) prioritize experiences over things. But, as noted, an exciting and enlightening business event that’s highly customized to your target audience may work better than a stunt that’s forgotten within a day.

Phone a friend

In 2019, we resolve to leverage our friends in mutually beneficial ways in our PR programs. Flexible, evenly weighted partnerships expand the bounds of so many elements of PR campaigns, and these collaborations tend to have exponential returns on investment. Partner up with a distribution company, key customer or a not-for-profit partner. Be bold in coming up with creative extensions to make the joint effort as big and successful as you can. Make the ideas irresistible and reap the rewards, jointly.

Reuse, recycle, re-tool

When brainstorming that shiny new program, don’t be afraid to look into the nostalgia file for winning tactics from the past. There’s no shame in adapting a proven idea for another purpose.

Do some real good

We resolve to incorporate activities that are designed to better society in 2019. A little thoughtful, sincere socially responsible PR can round out a successful program. But make sure the idea doesn’t come out of left field; it can and should come from a place of authenticity and be relevant to the mission and ethos of the company.

Dig into your data bank

Agencies that do a lot of tech PR have executed plenty of research, so they generally have a lot of data lying around ready to be collated or reinterpreted. When gearing up to craft a new PR program, why not scour your market research data for newsworthy nuggets for the tech press always hungry for data-driven stories?

Bring in fresh perspectives

We resolve to inject fresh voices into our campaigns. It pays to have quarterly brainstorm sessions that involve people unfamiliar with the project. Agencies should call in team members from other clients or other departments to brainstorm ideas. A fresh pair of eyes can offer a unique viewpoint that enlivens a brainstorm session and freshens up a plan.

Amp up the newsjacking

Reactive news opportunities come and go in blinks of an eye, so eyes must remain peeled to catch them. Most PR teams have their heads on swivels for the ever-important newsjacking chances, but may not have any formal processes set up. Perhaps 2019 is the time to set up a rapid-response protocol to avoid losing out on any chances to join a relevant conversation. See this earlier post for tips on reactive media pitching.

Start an executive blog

If your insightful, eloquent founder isn’t blogging on a regular basis, there may be a great PR new year’s resolution worth taking. Executive thought leadership exposure through original content requires some time and thought, but it can return dividends in the form of visibility, credibility, and brand voice. But be sure to blog regularly and consistently, adding real value for audiences. See this earlier post for tips on making a great PR-friendly blog.

Use targeted video

It’s no secret that video is king when it comes to targeted content. We resolve to use the well-documented power of video to drive engagement and provoke emotions. Video enhances SEO, keeps consumers engaged longer, and is more shareable than many other content forms. See this earlier post for 7 best PR uses for video content.

How Russia Used PR To Hack Our Election

A remarkable aspect of Russian propaganda efforts around our elections is how well they follow the modern social media and public relations playbook. Maybe because the news has come out in steady drips over two years, I hadn’t put the full picture together. But today’s story about the latest report to the Senate Intelligence Committee hit me in a new way. It revealed a sophisticated influence campaign by Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) that blended paid, earned, owned, and shared content on multiple social platforms, from Twitter and Facebook to YouTube and Instagram. That’s right, it’s the PESO content model, and it’s powerful.

For brands, PESO works well because it combines the four major types and channels of content – paid, earned, shared, and owned – and offers a blueprint for how they can amplify one another. Originally developed by Gini Dietrich, PESO offers a memorable acronym for PRs and a reasonable model for integrated communications campaigns in the social media age. Unfortunately, it works equally well for disinformation operations.

“E” is for earned media, but this was fake

Take the Russia influence efforts and what we now know. First came revelations of “fake news” items shared on Facebook and other platforms. The fake stuff was intentionally false, but it masqueraded as legitimate news content, or what PR people call “earned media.” That’s the “E” in PESO. The problem, of course, was that the stories were from fictitious “news” sites with innocuous-sounding names like the Empire Herald or USA Daily Info.

As a heavy consumer of (real) political content, I admit I never saw the fake news crisis coming. The headlines blaring that Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS, or that the Pope endorsed Trump seemed laughable. Yet, powered by the social algorithms that reward outrage, those stories quickly racked up millions of engagements, and not just by people who thought they were funny.
Check another PESO box there – the “S” for “shared.” Third-party content that’s widely shareable on major social platforms, maybe by people we trust, is the great amplifier for earned media.

Paid media accelerated social sharing

Another shoe dropped with the news that Russian trolls had bought political ads on Facebook. After initially calling it a “pretty crazy idea,” Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that Russian operatives had bought targeted ads on the platform. The initially reported budget of $100,000 was so small as to seem paltry. Yet, as every good PR person knows, earned and shared content can be effectively driven and amplified by paid ads — the “P” in PESO.

As it turned out, the Facebook ads of 2016 were a small part of a more widespread and well coordinated paid media effort. The February 2018 indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three other entities accused of defrauding the U.S. government by interfering with our political process, reports a healthy paid budget of $1.25M per month, with state-of-the-art reporting on shares, engagements and other interactions. The paid propaganda plot thickened.

The recent report offers even more insight into the broader disinformation campaign. It targeted African-Americans with inflammatory stories designed to suppress voting in their communities and among progressives. The numbers are impressive, and the report suggests that Russia’s use of Instagram has been underreported. At over 187 million engagements on Insta (compared to only 76.5 million for Facebook), it may have been more effective than Facebook for the IRA. Sound familiar?

“Owned” media channels muddy the waters

Then there’s the “O” in PESO, for owned media, or content openly created and distributed by its source. Its equivalent here would be Russia’s own public statements and the commentary and reporting on RT, the international television network funded by the Russian government, and similar news agencies. What’s most interesting to me about these official channels is how well they complement other, less obvious information efforts. The content supports Russia’s goals to promote a selective view of Western democracies and sow doubt about U.S. government views, motives and actions on a host of geopolitical issues. As one observer puts it, “That mixture of genuine and guff leaves you baffled and disoriented, which, I guess, is the point.”

Maybe I shouldn’t be so disturbed that a foreign power is pursuing an influence operation by using modern PR and PESO tactics. The seeds of the PR industry, after all, were sown during World War II. Two grandfathers of PR — Dan Edelman and Harold Burson – got their start in U.S. wartime communications. Burson was even part of the American Forces Network where he covered the Nuremberg trials. PR is literally the outgrowth of those wartime propaganda efforts.

Political propaganda and dirty tricks are as old as time, and I recognize that media channels and social tactics are just that — information channels, neither good nor evil. But it’s disheartening to recognize how tools and tactics you use every day can be used to subvert the very truth and principles we as communicators take for granted.

Tech Trends Media Didn’t Care About In 2018

In tech PR, the only constant is change. Every year, we see new trends in technology emerge that can inform our programs, content, or even real-time newsjacking. To make way for the new trends, others that have had their time in the spotlight may fall out of favor. As tech PR pros, we often have an inside track on what those are. Why? Because our job is to stay up-to-date on what media cover and care about. This intel guides our pitch angles, plans, bylines, conference submissions — basically everything.
With that in mind, here are a few of the most notable tech trends that went away or simply became less important in 2018, based on story volume or media interest.

Internet of Things

IoT didn’t go away in 2018. However, the category’s “newness” has worn off, and media are less likely to be interested in a story simply because it’s tied to IoT. Just a couple of years ago when IoT was still a relatively new concept, you would see flash-in-a-pan startups that were offering IoT-enabled curtains or toothbrushes drive legitimate story volume. Media thought they were intriguing IoT applications and often had great visuals for a story, even if not very practical. That alone made them coverable. That’s no longer the case. Also, as the IoT category has matured, security and privacy have become key concerns. The coverage has fundamentally shifted from “look at this cool tech” to “look at this dumb IoT device that may have security flaws — is the risk worth it?”

Crowdfunding

Crowdfunding in tech is here to stay, but as a publicity angle, it’s long over. The rise of Kickstarter and Indiegogo created a new era in tech PR, with pre-revenue businesses tapping PR to pitch crowdfunding campaigns so that they could get coverage and raise money. Rinse and repeat. Let’s be honest — media don’t want to cover startups that have no capital and no scalable product. Every tech journalist was pitched thousands of crowdfunding campaigns in the last five years — many of which were terrible and raised nothing. Others raised money but never delivered a product. So, media aren’t inclined to cover these campaigns anymore. There’s too much risk and uncertainty. Oculus Rift, which famously launched on Kickstarter in 2012 and broke records, was an anomaly, not the norm.

Crypto

If you’re a cryptocurrency startup, I will happily take your money for PR. But note this — crypto as a tech trend, like Bitcoin’s value, is cratering. Like IoT and crowdfunding, these are innovations that have had and will continue to have a massive impact on the technology space over the long term. But media are less likely to care about your crypto exchange or your Ethereum-based chat platform in 2019 as the category’s shine has worn off. A higher bar is required to drive any positive coverage around a crypto startup or storyline, since months of bad news have shut off opportunities. This is also why you’ve seen the rise of crypto-focused media outlets. As general tech media have narrowed overall coverage of the category, these trades are stepping in to take on the stories like new company announcements that might not otherwise find a home. Here, if you got in early, you may have captured some great coverage about the technology’s promise. Now? It’s an uphill climb to generate a positive story.

These are some of the tech trends I think went away or were minimized in 2018. Am I wrong? Right? What else am I missing? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter at @chrisharihar.

Google’s Turn On The Hot Seat: A PR View

Considering he is “one of the most powerful people on the planet,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai has kept a low profile. But this week, after Google had skipped earlier Congressional hearings involving his peers at Twitter and Facebook, Pichai had his high-stakes moment. And in PR terms, he may have dodged a bullet.

No wonder Google’s PR team was wary of his appearing before the House Judiciary Committee. The hearing offered a golden opportunity for members of Congress to grill Pichai on a host of issues — data privacy, Google’s use of location data in advertising, hate speech on YouTube, or its controversial experiments with a government-censored Chinese search engine, among others.

Fortunately for Google – and maybe unfortunately for the American public – the hearing’s headlines and video bites were largely about the tech illiteracy of congressional committee members. It was capped by Rep. Steve King’s question about why a nasty item about him popped up as his granddaughter played on her iPhone (“iPhone is made by a different company,” Pichai responded, looking slightly pained.) The Google CEO was in the embarrassing yet sympathetic position of trying to explain search algorithms to willfully ignorant Baby Boomers. You couldn’t help but feel bad for him.

Google broke the rules of PR and reputation management when it failed to appear at a similar Senate hearing in September. Senate staffers capitalized on its absence by placing a name placard before an empty chair reserved for Chief Executive Larry Page. Conventional PR wisdom dictates that Google would have fared better at a hearing with Facebook and Twitter; there is safety in numbers, after all.

It’s better to be lucky than smart

Yet, the gamble to skip the September hearing may have ultimately paid off. Maybe the attention was greater before the midterm elections, and Google won by waiting for its day on Capitol Hill. And since the September hearings, Facebook itself has weathered fresh reputation assaults. It was rocked by revelations that it hired a PR agency to smear competitors and malign the reputation of George Soros, a fierce Facebook critic. Google may have benefited by separating itself from Facebook. More predictably, it gained advantage because the congressional committee members this week were  – surprise! – largely ineffectual and absurdly partisan.

As in past hearings, Republican committee members were determined to browbeat Pichai over what they see as search results rigged in favor of liberals, while Democrats baited their colleagues across the aisle. Only Democratic Rep. David Cicilline drew anything like blood; when Cicilline pressed Pichai about the controversial Chinese “Project Dragonfly” Pichai was cornered into a series of evasive answers about government-sanctioned censorship.

Sure, there were the usual protests, but they were mostly comic relief.  TV cameras caught my favorite, the Monopoly man (aka activist Ian Madrigal), in a perfect photo-bomb position directly behind Pichai. But the anti-Google trolling was relatively mild, overshadowed by video like Democrat Zoe Lofgren’s question about why a search for “idiot” results in images of the current president. She was apparently being sarcastic to shame her Republican colleagues for their conspiracist questions, yet it came off as a cheap shot.

Google was also helped by Pichai’s demeanor. Compared to Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance last April, the 46-year-old CEO was mild-mannered, patient and helpful, with none of Zuck’s youthful arrogance or the stilted, overcoached delivery that characterized his remarks. As summed up by Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, “Google came away unscathed.”

Sometimes it’s not just about top-flight communications strategy and crisis management, but good luck and even better timing.

PR Tips For Winning Business Awards

Placing a piece of industry hardware on the company mantle can be a nice PR win for a B2B company at any stage. Along with earned media visibility and recognition for thought capital, awards are an exciting way to build credibility and authority. Most importantly, awards represent a third-party endorsement. That’s valuable currency for rising into a higher consideration set.

Here are some tips from Crenshaw’s own Conferences and Awards Manager for filling the trophy case.

Awards are all about the outcomes

Whether entering a customer case study, product, or an individual award, the judges are looking for quantifiable demonstration of success. Don’t bother with the “customers have been very pleased with the product” or “our reputation has been enhanced…” Anecdotal evidence won’t earn the award; you’ll need as many hard campaign ROI numbers as possible for the entry. When submitting for a customer service award, be prepared to supply some numbers on customer reviews and testimonials. It’s also a good idea to consider data visualizations as a supporting document for some awards to substantiate the numbers.

Choose awards wisely

Industry awards exist for every vertical and niche, so choosing the right one is no simple task. Each awards competition will have multiple categories and/or subcategories, which naturally increases the chances of winning, but also adds complexity to the task. Your PR agency or team should have an existing database of awards from which they can compile a targeted list. More established companies may elect to focus on awards that have an editorial component; that is, awards produced or sponsored by media outlets.

For B2B technology companies, publications like The Drum, Digiday, Campaign, Forbes, and Ad Age all put on annual award programs. Major trade conferences and trade associations like IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) also dole out awards. Note that some of the high-profile business awards like Fortune Most Admired Companies, Glassdoor, and Forbes do not have a submission process. Instead, they evaluate companies based on their own metrics or on employee reviews, as is the case with Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work.

Award entries need not be dull

Industry competitions usually require entry reports of anywhere from 500 to 1500 words. Because the entries often explicitly list required elements, it might seem that a dry boilerplate document is called for. But like most any PR content, a quality awards entry should feature good storytelling. That’s not as challenging as one might assume. B2B campaign case studies have the same basic story structure. A customer has a problem, it enlists a solutions provider to help solve it, they form a strategy, execute the campaign, and solve the problem. Entry reports should read like simple stories, with rich, action-oriented language. No competition judge wants to be lulled to sleep reading dry, antiseptic entries.

Mark your calendar

Industry awards are usually annual, so businesses can and should plan an attack strategy well in advance. Consistent award wins can bolster a company’s reputation for product or service excellence. A PR team can even plan to enter its company’s new offerings into competitions many months down the line – basically targeting certain awards and categories for new products they anticipate to be successful. This type of planning helps prevent procrastination and can help shape the entry. Award entries can be costly, both in cash and staff time, so it helps to analyze all programs and prioritize the most prestigious, relevant, and promotable programs for the highest return-on-investment.

Leverage the win

The whole point of winning awards is to brag about them. PR and marketing will amplify the win in owned media channels, collateral, and perhaps a press release or email. Place the official award logo on company webpages; write about the win in a blog post; feature it in the newsletter; include it in new business pitches; and don’t forget to celebrate the win within the company, especially if it showcases a star employee. Naturally, news of the win will be shared on all social channels, so make sure any customer permissions are in place well in advance. Many awards feature ceremonies or galas, which can offer further opportunities for industry exposure, customer networking, and even extra PR. See our earlier post for more on leveraging award wins. Now go and bring home the hardware!

The Problem With Influencers

Influencer programs can be very effective, particularly as part of a strategic PR program. From YouTube kids to @dogsofinstagram, influencer marketing has grown fast in consumer product sectors like toys, fashion and beauty. Inevitably, problems have emerged. The relationships are not without risk, and some marketers simply go too far with influencer marketing, essentially outsourcing their relationships with their own customers to third parties.

That’s a mistake. There are many common pitfalls that marketers face given the growth of influencer culture.

Influence hinges on credibility

Last week Payless Shoes pulled off a pretty brilliant stunt that worked as a legitimate marketing campaign, though it wasn’t what it seemed. Payless took over an Armani store, renamed it “Palessi,” and stocked the shelves with its typical bargain-priced inventory.  It then invited high-end fashion influencers to attend a special opening event to sample the luxury footwear. The catch: the guests unwittingly bought $20 shoes for $200 to $600 while raving about their quality and style.

The ploy generated lots of coverage because it cleverly reinforced the Payless brand promise of decent style for a great price, positioning it as an authentic value. But it was also a tweak of fashion influencer culture. The “experts” came off as posturing phonies, and the trick is a reminder that all influencers aren’t created equal. It’s not enough to have lots of followers or to offer a superficial fit with a brand. A real influencer should be credible, with authentic expertise or appeal that is truly relevant to the category in question.

Fraud is muddying the social environment

Even worse than the third-party “influencer” who overstates their own expertise or sway is one who doesn’t exist at all! Earlier this year, Unilever CMO Keith Weed called on major social platforms like Instagram to take “urgent action now to rebuild trust before it’s gone forever.” Citing problems with fake followers, bots, and murky business arrangements, Unilever pledged to lead an industry effort to clean up fraud and adhere to high levels of integrity and transparency in programs and ROI. Points North Group, which measures influencer marketing, estimates that midlevel influencers—those with 50,000 to 100,000 followers—may have as a fake follower rate as high as 20%. That adds up to millions of marketing dollars spent on bots.

The fraud factor goes beyond paid marketing, however. Even those who aren’t paying popular figures on Twitter or Instagram to promote products or engage users are likely promoting content and measuring its effectiveness with inflated follower and engagement numbers due to fraud. So, fraud hurts everyone, and it devalues the entire influencer sphere.

Influence requires relevance

Another common pitfall for brands is correlating influence with audience size. There may or may not be a direct relationship between someone’s followers on Facebook or Instagram and their power to make those followers click, engage, or buy. For an influencer marketing investment to pay off, there must be a line between the influencer’s content and an actual behavior by the target consumers. That’s why influencer programs that involve actual customers are a viable alternative to celebrity endorsements or Instagram stars.

Sometimes marketers need to choose between individuals who inspire trust and those with enormous reach. It’s difficult and expensive to have both, which is why we often counsel clients to consider “citizen influencers” who may not be well known but who offer well-earned expertise that’s relevant to the product or service promoted.

Influence is tough to scale

Growing an influencer program is another hurdle for marketers. How do you manage multiple recommenders across social platforms as diverse as LinkedIn and SnapChat? And how does a brand afford the fees and measurement costs associated with a broad international campaign? Building real influence depends on relevance, and no one is relevant to all audiences.

For many brands, the answers are in use of tech tools for identifying, tracking and measuring engagement; a mix of paid and unpaid media; and careful research and oversight informing the choice of influencers involved. Forrester’s 2018 report on the latest word-of-mouth platforms that harness technology to scale and measure influencer programs is useful for some of the recent tools it cites.

No matter how you slice it, building influence is just plain hard

It takes an investment of time and talent, both by the brand and the individual – human or otherwise. Check out this piece by New York Times tech reporter Brian Chen on his efforts to turn his pet Corgi into an Instagram celebrity. It’s hilarious and even a little instructive. Chen’s content was arguably good, but not nearly good enough to break through on the “brutally competitive” (dog-eat-dog?) platform. What’s more, the usual advice — paid promotion, buying followers, clever hashtag strategies —  fell flat or even backfired.

The point here isn’t that Instagram and other platforms are cluttered, or that influencer programs are overhyped, though both are true. It’s that there is no magic bullet. Instead of outsourcing the brand relationship to third parties or investing heavily in an A-list celebrity strategy, the most effective and creative influencer programs go beyond the easy and obvious. They depend on reach, relevance, and credibility, and they work in concert with other marketing investments over the long term.

Want To Work In Tech PR? Here Are 5 Questions

Tech PR is an intensely competitive sector. Jobs are more in demand than ever, as brands in every vertical and size have come to recognize the value of positive reputation and third-party endorsement. As it has grown, PR has become more specialized, which has affected recruiting. Filling PR agency positions is harder than in the past, when press relationships, networking ability, and writing chops were all that mattered.
Specialized agencies have specialized needs. Take my agency; we focus on tech PR, with a particular focus in B2B technology. Press relationships, strong networking, and content skills still matter, but they’re table stakes. Understanding and articulating strategy as it relates to tech and vertical trade media and currency in hot topics like artificial intelligence or blockchain — these qualifications are now equally critical for success. With that in mind, here are five questions that anyone interested in tech PR — especially B2B tech PR — should be able to address in a job interview.

Good questions for a tech PR interview

 

1. Where do you get your news?

This is a make-or-break question— at least for some of us here. If you’re being interviewed for a role that supports several ad tech clients, for example, you might be expected to rattle off several relevant publications like Adweek, AdAge, Digiday, and AdExchanger. If you’re expected to support clients that build B2B AI solutions, you might boost your cred if you get news from publications like Forbes, TechCrunch, Wall Street Journal, and CIO.

2. How would you support a product launch for [insert client]?

I like to ask candidates how they would support specific product launches from a media relations point of view for our B2B tech clients. Sometimes we get down in the weeds, discussing whether an embargoed or exclusive strategy might work, and though smart people can disagree, we’re usually looking for a realistic and informed approach. Would the New York Times care about an exclusive for a feature update from an AI-powered supply chain platform? Unless it’s a game-changing innovation, probably not. But VentureBeat or SupplyChainBrain might. Answers to these hypothetical strategy questions are very telling.

3. What are three interesting tech trends you keep reading about?

Successful tech PR pros routinely keep their ears to the ground, monitoring hot topics and trends for general intelligence and newsjacking opportunities. Being able to name several high tech trends — from AI to blockchain to voice and beyond — that are interesting or relevant can showcase your interest in the space and reveal an ability to identify new media engagement opportunities for clients. If you’re hired by a tech PR agency, you will eat, sleep, and speak these trends on day one, so you had better have some knowledge and interest in the sector.

4. Are you on Twitter?

This seems like a dumb question. Most in tech PR use Twitter religiously, either to catch breaking news in real time or to build relationships with key media. But that’s the point. I ask this question a lot and am always surprised by how few candidates can claim a true Twitter presence. For a tech PR expert, it’s this generation’s new RSS feed. If you tell me you don’t use it much, or, even worse, aren’t on it, I’m immediately skeptical.

5. What’s your crisis PR background?

In technology PR work, there is no shortage of land mines. I once worked on a well-known e-commerce platform that allowed you to design and sell personalized merchandise. At first glance, it seemed like a “safe” brand, unlikely to encounter reputation threats. But it turned out that a small group of designers were creating veiled racist apparel and selling it through the service. Problems erupt in this sector, often unexpectedly and with long-lasting impact. In B2B tech, the threats can be even worse, with data privacy and compliance issues potentially often lurking below the surface of the public conversation. One bad moment can lay waste to a brand reputation. For these reasons, I always ask about a candidate’s last client “crisis” and how they helped navigate it. If someone with several years’ experience can’t name anything significant, I may question their readiness for an account position.

These are several questions that, if answered adeptly, can help you land a coveted tech PR agency role. And, if you’re an agency, these questions can help you weed out weak candidates and compete for the best talent. As any industry becomes more competitive and specialized, asking the right questions will be essential to candidates and employees alike. See this earlier post for more on how to nail a dream PR job.