When is It Okay To Get Political In Brand PR?

It’s (finally) Inauguration Week. With a new government starting, it’s a good time to look back at how brands communicated during the turmoil of the Trump administration, and how it informs new norms. 

Many of us were raised with the idea that it’s bad form to speak about religion or politics. Brands historically have followed suit, yet things have changed over the last several years. 

Was Trump’s presidency a turning point?

Just last year, hundreds of businesses released strongly worded messaging in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. More recently corporate leaders spoke out against the unprecedented unrest at the U.S. Capitol and pointed the finger directly at President Trump. 

Not every moment will be as clear or as big as watching an insurrection on television, so the question arises: when is it appropriate for a brand’s external messaging to verge into politics or politically charged issues? The answer: it’s complicated. 

Brand values start with the customer

It all starts with understanding your brand. That includes its values and those of its audience. This also means messaging that is seen as authentic and not merely to seem “woke” or drive profit. Taking a political stance that’s not really informed by brand values won’t work; customers are good at spotting who is pivoting to benefit from the political environment.

For instance, if spice company Penseys or ice cream maker Ben and Jerry’s make a political statement, it’s not unexpected or inauthentic because we know the history of these brands. They’ve been speaking out about social and political issues for a long time. Senior management actually believe what they’re saying, and they know their audience agrees. 

However, in the Trump era, more brands are trying to dip into political messaging, and sometimes it doesn’t ring true. Remember the fallout from the Pepsi commercial where Kendall Jenner handed a police officer a Pepsi, and it magically solved an unnamed issue? Pepsi took a lot of heat for that commercial and it wasn’t because the brand got political. The problem was that the message was so inauthentic. It also trivialized true protest action. (Did they really think a can of Pepsi would solve a systemic problem? We didn’t, either.) The ad was so tone-deaf that the public saw it for what it was. It wasn’t because Pepsi decided to take a stand against police violence, but instead was a clear sales play. 

The winners will always take some heat

Pepsi failed by addressing activism in a shallow and inauthentic way. That’s not to say that a calculated risk can’t be worth it though. Another company tackled the racial inequality issue head-on and reaped the benefits for its brand. When it signed a deal with Colin Kaepernick in 2018, Nike knew that its audience supported the social justice issues Kaepernick kneeled for. Of course its stand was met with some backlash, but Nike product sales jumped in the following months. Why? It wasn’t because Nike went into politics, but rather because the message was true to the brand and its history. Nike’s branding has always conveyed passion, drive, and pushing yourself to do better, the very values that Kaepernick embodies as well. 

Now that we’ve made it through four years of the Trump administration, we’ve moved past brands staying away from politics for fear of alienating consumers. On the contrary, many of today’s customers are looking for brands that share their values and actively communicate it. So, it’s up to marketers to identify areas of alignment and to convey their positions in a way that feels true. 

5 Reasons Your Story Wasn’t Picked Up: A PR View

Every experienced PR person has had their share of media opportunities that looked promising but never resulted in coverage. In fact, most can recall a particular occasion where everything went right, whether it was a full interview or a quick comment, and nothing came of it. Although there’s no magic to guaranteeing a 100% coverage rate, there are ways to maximize your chances of seeing your company’s quote in a story. Below are five reasons why the story didn’t materialize.

The spokesperson wasn’t prepared

Even if your spokesperson is an expert in the field and on the subject at hand, they will need a thorough briefing. This should go beyond a topic and journalist bio. A PR rep should get as much information as possible, pressing for detail on the proposed discussion and the story’s slant. You will not get specific questions, but pulling together a predictive Q&A is useful. In addition, structure is just as important as content. Often your spokesperson will review the briefing document during the interview, so creating an easy-to-scan guide they can review and absorb in real time is critical.

The quote lacked color

For a quote, context and color are often the major factors for inclusion in a story. Make sure your spokesperson is providing new and intriguing insights instead of reiterating what the reporter has likely heard, especially since they might have multiple quotes to consider. A quick brainstorm for unique points and turns of phrase can prepare your spokesperson to offer something new to the journalist. In addition, make sure every insight is relevant to the story and topic at hand. Don’t be afraid to go for a contrarian angle or quote, but make sure the opinion is authentic, and that the spokesperson is comfortable with offering a point of view that’s outside the mainstream.

The interview was too late

Reporters are always on deadline and they often need to speak as soon as possible. It’s important to lock in any opportunities quickly. If your go-to spokesperson is busy and can’t talk right away, consider other executives or experts who might be qualified. There are also circumstances where a pre-prepared quote or comment may be helpful, especially in situations that are anticipated, like the release of government unemployment numbers, or an announcement by a competitor. Also, a quick follow-up with the reporter is helpful. A journalist will often request more information or confirmation of details, so quick responses are warranted and appreciated.

The spokesperson wasn’t the right expert

As helpful as a thorough briefing document might be, it’s also essential for any media spokesperson to have real and relevant expertise on the subject at hand. This is why it can be advantageous to have a matrix of spokespersons, whether in-house or outside experts, on hand for multiple opportunities. Trying to shoehorn a vague or irrelevant comment into a story that needs informed expertise is almost always a waste of time. But when the situation calls for an opinion as opposed to an insight, a colorful metaphor or analogy can win the day.

The comments were too promotional

The quickest way to shut down a journalist’s interest in an interview is to turn it into a sales pitch. Any company spokesperson or third-party expert should avoid jargon, especially comments that talk up a product or service that’s not the point of the story. A good PR rep will coach their executive on ways to demonstrate expertise without devolving into sales-speak. 

Big Business Must Help Us Unify

Pundits and politicians have bemoaned our country’s cultural and partisan divisions for years. Yet things have gotten worse. There’s just not much that brings us together these days. We’ve seen an erosion of confidence in our major institutions –  government, faith groups, and media, among others.

I’ve long thought that this perfect storm of disunity represents an obligation – and an opportunity – for corporate America. It’s time for the business community as a group and individual businesses as brands, to help us heal the divide. In the wake of the shocking violence last week, that may be starting to happen, and there’s a role for PR and corporate communications. After all, we are all about credibility. But it’s now America’s reputation that’s on the line, and the right messaging isn’t enough.

Why business can help

The roots of what happened Wednesday are deep. But big business is in a unique position to help restore confidence in our systems. Large companies are mostly bipartisan. Citizens and media respect and listen to them, and elected officials count on their support. Most have huge advertising and marketing clout. Sure, they have their own best interests and that of their shareholders in mind, but they rely primarily on facts and numbers, not ideology or opinions. After years of staying out of most political and cultural controversies, many corporations spoke out during the Trump administration, especially following the murder of George Floyd. Now, the stakes are higher.

As images of the flag-waving mob filled our newsfeeds, business groups mounted a strong response.  The National Association of Manufacturers, a business lobbying powerhouse that has welcomed many of the president’s policies, pointed a finger directly at Mr. Trump and urged his removal.

“The outgoing president incited violence in an attempt to retain power, and any elected leader defending him is violating their oath to the Constitution and rejecting democracy in favor of anarchy. Anyone indulging conspiracy theories to raise campaign dollars is complicit. Vice President Pence, who was evacuated from the Capitol, should seriously consider working with the Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment to preserve democracy.”

Many AAM member companies offered comment in support of the statement. Other groups, including labor unions, the National Retail Federation, and the Chamber of Commerce, followed with strong statements of condemnation. The AFL-CIO called the riot “one of the greatest assaults on our democracy since the Civil War.”

Companies pause pursestrings

What’s encouraging is that other businesses were even more pointed in their actions, putting their money on the line. By Monday, Marriott, Blue Cross Blue Shied, Commerce Bancshares and Citibank said they will stop donating to members of Congress who objected to the certification of the Electoral College vote. CVS Health Corp., Exxon Mobil, FedEx and Target are reported to be reviewing their political giving. Still others, including Bank of America, Ford Motor Co. and AT&T, say they will “take recent events into consideration before making future donations.” I’m not sure what that means, but it’s clear that every major corporation is looking at its public affairs, lobbying, and candidate donation commitments in a new context. This is big. And in what might be the unkindest cut for Trump, organizers of the 2022 PGA Championship canceled plans to host its event at his Bedminster, N.J. golf course.

To be sure, many commitments are vague or open-ended, and the repudiation comes after several corporations chose to look the other way for too long after the election results were confirmed. Many overlooked inhumane policies or controversial tweets because they loved the administration’s tax cuts. As Starbucks founder Howard Schultz put it, “The Trump tax cut was fool’s gold.” Last week, those businesses woke up – too late to tamp down the lies that led to the insurrection, but not too late to help repair the damage.

The president loses his MAGAphone

The most attention-getting corporate responses were by the tech companies who control social media platforms. Weeks after slapping labels on many of the president’s tweets, Twitter suspended his account, then banned it altogether. Facebook announced a suspension until after the inauguration, and Amazon Web Services took the extraordinary step of denying hosting services to right-wing platform Parler, a destination for #StoptheSteal organizing. The move forces Parler offline until it can find another host.

These actions raise questions about the motives of companies like Twitter and Facebook. The suspensions don’t violate free speech, as some have alleged. But the tech giants have been rightly accused of wanting to have their cake and eat it, too – the freedom of a neutral tech platform with the scale and sway of a media company, yet with none of the accountability. And their actions come just after the Georgia runoff elections that gave slim control of the Senate to Democrats – many of whom have pushed for tighter regulation. But their motives don’t have to be pure for the actions to make an impact. If nothing else, it sets a precedent for the future.

A “truth reckoning”

What does it all mean, and how should corporate communicators behave? First, I think we can’t underreact to what happened. What may have looked like a clown coup on Wednesday now emerges as a violent mob bent on insurrection and very real harm. The videos are ghastly, and more will surely come out. Everyone can unify around a position that rejects violence.

Corporate America can also stand up for objective truth. We’re witnessing this trainwreck because reckless lawmakers claimed the 2020 election was stolen, and their lies were amplified within the right-wing media ecosystem. As much as I hate to see lawsuits against a media outlet – any media outlet – it was impressive how fast NewsMax and OANN backed down after being threatened with defamation complaints. Our judiciary is probably the only U.S. institution that has held up during the president’s unceasing attacks on the integrity of our election, so let’s use it when other methods for accountability fail.

Business media can also step up, and it has. Forbes did something unprecedented. In what it terms “a truth reckoning,” it is calling on corporate America not to let the “chronic liars cash in on their dishonesty” by hiring Trump administration press secretaries as communications officers. Reeling off a list of former administration presssecs from Sean Spicer to Kayleigh McEnany, Chief Content Officer Randall Lane points out that in PR, “credibility is the coin of the realm.” They are words to warm any CCO’s heart.

“Hire any of Trump’s fellow fabulists above, and Forbes will assume that everything your company or firm talks about is a lie. We’re going to scrutinize, double-check, investigate with the same skepticism we’d approach a Trump tweet. Want to ensure the world’s biggest business media brand approaches you as a potential funnel of disinformation? Then hire away.”

Then there’s the advertising clout of big business. In my opinion, ad boycotts are tricky. They’re invoked too often for silly reasons and they often fail to produce the desired results. But now is the time for every top advertiser to scrutinize its traditional media and digital/social commitments to ensure they’re aligned with corporate values – and common sense. The election lie isn’t going to go away, but it cannot be allowed to fester and grow.

The opportunity for business communicators

Finally, businesses must support their communities with leadership, backed by solid communications about their intentions and actions. There are plenty of bipartisan issues and initiatives to champion. There are opportunities to speak out on tough issues without being divisive. There are ways to fight back against malignant propaganda about our institutions through public service campaigns, advocacy, and one-on-one diplomacy. Our glorious and imperfect country has suffered under a lack of leadership, but there’s nothing like a little sedition to bring us together. As influencers and advocates for business leaders, we in public relations all have a role.

How Influencers Can Elevate Your PR Campaign

As digital content consumption continues to grow, PR pros are always looking for ways to target specific audiences through social media. We know the power that social media campaigns can wield – from amplifying earned media that PR generates to marketing products. And adding influencers to the mix can boost those PR efforts exponentially. 

Influencers who resonate with a specific segment help brands stay relevant by cutting through the digital noise. The blend of social media reach and trust in specific personalities can really amplify a campaign. Read on to find out how to craft the best collaboration.

Don’t count out influencers for B2B PR

The splashiest influencer marketing campaigns tend to be in beauty, fashion, and other lifestyle sectors, but don’t count it out for B2B PR. Many B2B categories, like software, have long selling cycles where customers spend significant time learning about products and services. Educational or service-oriented content that shares expertise is typically a big part of a B2B PR program, and that’s where expert influencers come in. A business leader or subject-matter expert (SME) who posts content in the form of bylined pieces, white papers, blog posts, or explainer videos can help differentiate a company and add personality to its brand.

Influencer marketing creates trust

In nearly any category peer recommendations can play a pivotal role in a buying decision. Ninety percent of people are more likely to trust others they see when scrolling through their feed versus a traditional marketing post by a brand that’s clearly pushing a product or service. 

Influencers typically spend a significant amount of time – in most cases, years – building a relationship with a base of fans or followers. Their credibility (or lack of it) stems from how they show expertise while remaining relatable. The most successful will leverage their emotional connections with audiences to create brand loyalty and inspire people to try something new.

Micro-Influencers help manage risk 

As engagement with traditional media channels like TV, radio, and print has declined, marketing with influencers offers a natural and low-pressure way to get brand-related information in front of a targeted audience. 

Micro-influencers have between 5,000 to 100,000 followers and may operate in niche markets. Some will even have higher engagement and conversion rates compared to mega influencers with millions of followers, due to their perceived authenticity. These smaller-scale influencers can also be powerful for B2B PR efforts, where they offer the advantages of lower costs and the ability to generate social engagement that is more tightly focused in vertical sectors like financial services or business technology, for example. 

Working with micro-influencers is also a way to manage risk and stretch a marketing or PR budget. A group of micro-influencers with small, but highly engaged audiences might be a wiser investment than partnering with a single, more expensive mega- influencer, and there’s always the flexibility to ramp up or down as things progress.  

Finding the right influencer

The right fit is essential to a successful influencer campaign. Brands and their PR teams should look for the right partner based on a highly engaged following rather than a dazzling follower count. Here are other factors to keep in mind:

Relevance 

Look through the influencer’s content to see how it aligns with your messaging. The content and the audience of the influencer far outweigh the amount of traffic they receive. 

Engagement 

Engagement is indicative of how frequently an influencer’s audience engages with their content. Frequency of fan engagement is a key sign of meaningful relationships.

Reach

Though it can actually be overrated, reach is a valid metric, and the trend line of an influencer’s reach is an important factor in planning a future relationship. It’s also vital to keep in mind the platforms prioritized by the target audience, of course. B2B brands will want to reach industry decision-makers who are typically more engaged on Twitter and LinkedIn, while consumer marketers may want to focus on Instagram or Snap. 

Frequency

High-quality content posted on a consistent basis correlates with the traffic and a higher rate of returning visitors, which, in turn, this increases audience engagement and reach.

Authenticity 

Influencers with a smaller ratio of sponsored content appear more authentic and are more trusted by their audiences. Personal anecdotes with natural mention of a brand are also a good idea, as they often hold more weight than a review.

It’s also a good idea to see if a potential influencer has strong relationships with other influencers, and if so, how their respective audiences overlap. The overlap between their audience and yours is a key indicator of whether a campaign or long-term partnership will offer a high return-on-investment.

Influencer content and measurement goals 

Explore the type of content that potential influencers publish and compare it with your audience’s preferences and behaviors.  

Creating content with an influencer is a great way to build a relationship. Here are some ideas:

– Host a live Q&A 

– Hold a webinar with an influencer as the host

– Write a series or blog together

– Record a podcast episode

Match metrics like reach and share of voice with your overall PR goals to examine the impact of your influencer.

Engage with your community and build relationships

Once the collaboration begins, it’s time to focus on building and strengthening relationships with your followers. Offering valuable content on a regular basis will lay a foundation, while aligning with an expert or influencer will deepen the engagement and build trust over time.

PR Tips For Securing A TV Segment

In PR, broadcast pitching is sometimes underused and overlooked when it comes to securing coverage for clients. From national outlets like CNN, Fox Business or the Today show to local affiliates, a solid broadcast segment can make a lasting impact. Broadcast segments typically have a large and high-quality reach in real time, and they live online and are searchable thereafter. Most PR teams will amplify segments on social media for further exposure.

When pitching broadcast outlets it’s important to note the main differences between the medium and print, and to offer producers the information the need for potential segments. Here are some top PR tips for scoring top broadcast stories.

Make it relevant

No matter what you’re pitching, to gain a producer’s attention, the subject matter must be topical and newsworthy. Pay attention to the news cycle and breaking stories – can you tie your client into a relevant headline? You may be able to use a current topic in the news cycle for your client/brand, but bear in mind that a spokesperson must be ready to open their schedule for a segment on short notice. Producers and guest bookers work on very tight deadlines, so a fast pitch and even faster response are often essential.

Local vs. national

Are you pitching local news or national? For local affiliates, it’s best to tie the story into a local angle, as that’s what local outlets cover. When you want to target a specific part of the country, regional broadcast is the way to go. National segments are reserved for wider announcements that typically appeal to a national audience, of course. Producers and assignment editors are looking for stories that tie into current news. So if your news isn’t a big story, find a way to tie it to the flow of the news to add the hook for the producer. In our work promoting new COVID-19 diagnostic products, we’re naturally looking for local news outlets where the virus has spiked, which are unfortunately all too common. For a more business-oriented story, you may want to pay attention to regional statistics on employment, spending, and consumer confidence, for example.

Spell it out

When pitching a producer, make the necessary segment points clear. Before the producer even has to ask, you should provide information needed such as expert spokesperson bio, images, b-roll, company description or boilerplate, sample talking points and links to previous interviews the spokesperson has done so the producer can see how they appear on camera. Give the producer any relevant information to make them understand the who, what, and why of a potential segment. Providing any necessary information upfront is more likely to draw the producer’s attention and approval and save on subsequent back-and-forth email exchanges. 

Use the newsdesk

Always send the pitch and relevant news directly to the station’s newsdesk. The newsdesk is the department of a broadcasting organization responsible for collecting and reporting the news. The reporters at the newsdesk make sure any relevant/interesting news that comes in is presented in the station’s morning meeting and possibly selected for segments. It’s important to pitch your story early before the stations have their daily meetings. If you don’t hear back from them, pick up the phone and call them to make sure they received your email!

Know the producers beat

As with any kind of media pitching, it’s best to take the time to research and learn who would be the best person(s) to receive your pitch instead of blasting the pitch to a wide list of contacts. Research the producers, review their last segment, and find out what they typically work on that might be a fit for your story. You can even personalize your note and mention their latest segment in your email. This will help your pitch stand out and they’ll realize that you took the time to do some research before sending a “cold” email. A strong first impression can help build a lasting relationship which may mean additional segment opportunities – a win-win.

Follow up

Producers receive many pitches in a given day, and it’s hard to keep track of everything they receive. They may be interested in your story but get quickly sidetracked by another email or query. There’s a school of thought that PR people shouldn’t bother media after sending a pitch because they risk being annoying. But in the real world, we recommend following up, and if you don’t hear back, consider a phone call. If you have a quality story idea in mind, it will pay to be respectfully persistent.

A PR Pro’s Letter To Santa Claus

Dear Santa,

What a crazy year it has been. We started strong but were hit with a big curveball. We adjusted, thinking all would be back to normal within weeks. How wrong we were! 

This holiday season will look a little different from years past, but we’re hopeful for new beginnings in 2021. On behalf of PR people everywhere (or at least my peers and me), here is our wish list: 

Valuable stories in top-tier publications 

A top earned media story for a client always feels like a gift — even if we strategize and work for it for weeks at a stretch. But we’re greedy for more! Our wish list includes high-level stories in top business and tech media outlets that advance client goals. Sometimes it’s all about quality over quantity. 

A finalized press release after a single round of edits

Every PR person dreads edits to a complex announcement release that’s subject to full team review. Take a partnership release; often it goes through multiple rounds of edits and back-and-forth conversations on language and messaging. We’d welcome hearing the magical words “This can be marked as final” after one round of edits.

An increase in engagement across all social media accounts

Earned media is our bread-and-butter, but social sharing is the fastest way to create a two-way conversation with potential customers and partners. (It’s also a great way to amplify our earned stories.) We’re banking on a boost from Santa (and some creative tactics) to help our team achieve a healthy increase in engagement or followers for our social accounts. How about 50%?

More speaking engagements for execs at industry events

Executive visibility is an important piece of the PR program puzzle. As any good PR person knows, it can help establish credibility for a C-level executive among industry peers and be part of an effective thought leadership campaign. One way to do this is through keynote and panel speaking opportunities at industry events. 2020 saw in-person conferences move online, but our experts are still in demand. Let’s continue this momentum and highlight our executives at high-profile events – maybe even in-person!

A healthy number of new business wins

There’s something exciting about getting a fresh RFP from a prospective client. It gives us the opportunity to display expertise, brag about past work, and strategize for high-growth B2B companies in the tech space. Help us seal the deal with new prospects for successful partnerships in 2021. 

A return to office life 

Speaking for myself, this has been a tough year working from home. PR pros are traditionally social people, and most of us thrive when we can see co-workers every day. 2021 looks promising, and we’re hoping to be reunited after many long months. I think even the introverts among us are hoping for this gift.

Happy Holidays and here’s to a year of hope and possibility in 2021!

PR Hits And Misses Of 2020

It’s that time of year — when observers trained in PR and reputation weigh in on the brands and personalities who made news in good and bad ways during the year. But 2020 is different from previous years. Many stories that might otherwise have made news were overshadowed by two monsters — the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S. presidential election. Each had legs, to put it mildly, and both knocked an untold number of things out of the virtual headlines. And each had a huge wave effect that spilled into new stories over the year. Here, then, is my list for the PR best and worst of 2020.

The PR Worst

Mike Bloomberg

New York’s three-term mayor soared in visibility – and popularity – when he entered the democratic presidential field in late 2019. Fueled by an advertising war chest that only a billionaire could amass, Bloomberg climbed quickly in the polls, only to fall to earth after a poor debate performance in February. Rivals criticized him in harsh and personal terms over his mayoral record and infamous “stop and frisk” policing policies. At the same time, accusations of disrespectful behavior to women he employed at his namesake company resurfaced. To add insult to injury, he reneged on a pledge to pay campaign staff through November of 2020 even after exiting the race. In reputation terms, it added up to a $900 million black eye.

Rudolph Giuliani

Maybe Bloomberg will take solace in the fact that his problems were nothing compared to those of another former New York City mayor. Giuliani’s image deterioration began years ago, when even allies noticed his odd behavior and thirst for media coverage at any cost. But this year was a doozy. The former 9/11 hero was in the news for all the wrong reasons – habitually butt-dialing reporters, being punked in humiliating fashion by Sacha Baron Cohen, and presiding over the infamous Four Seasons Landscaping press conference. But the most indelible image might be the one of the presser where a sweating and irrational Giuliani railed about a “rigged election” with hair dye running down his face. It was a sad comedown for America’s mayor.

Quibi

It’s almost like Quibi never really had a chance. The mobile streaming service’s biggest mistake wasn’t really in its PR presentation, but it may have been the victim of its own hype. On the plus side, it offered an A-list roster of talent and the pedigree of its founders. Yet Quibi’s timing was exquisitely bad; it was launched as “on-the-go” content in quick bites at the precise time when we weren’t going anywhere. It could have pivoted much more quickly. It waited until summer to enable device support beyond mobile, and in October it released apps for TV-streaming devices. It also hurt that Quibi viewers couldn’t even screenshot shows until late summer. That may seem silly, but meme creation and social sharing for shows could have been powerful, and it all came as too little, too late.

McKinsey

McKinsey has already weathered reputation hits due to its role in the opioid crisis, but the news got worse in 2020.  The most chilling detail? The New York Times broke the news that the storied consulting firm suggested rebates be paid to pharmacy companies whose customers overdosed on OxyContin. McKinsey is clearly taking the situation seriously; it offered a rare apology for its efforts to “turbocharge” profits from OxyContin sales for Purdue Pharma, which has pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to its opioid marketing. For McKinsey, it’s the worst year yet and a sign that only a fresh start and clean executive slate will restore its reputation.

Brand America

The shambolic handling of the COVID pandemic, the nativist retrenchment from the world stage, and ongoing allegations of a rigged election haven’t exactly done America proud. If those headlines were about another country, we’d probably be shaking our heads. I’ll leave it to diplomacy experts to calculate the damage to U.S. “soft power” wrought by the demoralized and decimated state department, but there’s surely a loss of prestige for us abroad. It’s hard to be a role model for democracy, innovation, and efficiency with the track record we’ve earned in 2020. Let’s hope good old American inventiveness and business leadership will help us rebound in 2021.

The PR Best

Healthcare workers

Our frontline healthcare workers, among many others on the front lines of the COVID pandemic, are still under pressure as the virus spikes yet again. Yet 2020 has brought recognition for the thousands of overworked and undervalued staffers in our hospitals and healthcare facilities. The N95-marked faces of those who put themselves at risk to heal others is one of the most unforgettable images of the year.

America’s governors

The administration never seemed to have a clear strategy for managing COVID, and its communications was rife with mixed messages and a disastrous politicization of basic protective measures like use of face coverings. It was left to America’s governors to lead constituents through the crisis, and many proved up to the task. New York’s Governor Cuomo impressed with his clear and coherent daily briefings; as I wrote back in March, what seems like bluster and dogmatism on an ordinary day rises to resolute leadership when people are scared. Ohio’s Mike DeVine brought tough love and real talk to his management of the pandemic in Ohio. Many state leaders really met the moment.

TikTok

Remember when the kids were worried that TikTok would be banned in the U.S.? That didn’t happen, thanks to a convoluted transaction involving Oracle and Wal-Mart. In a strong use of proactive PR to change the narrative,  TikTok GM for the U.S. Vanessa Pappas showed both savvy and PR smarts in her handling of the situation. First, she ignored her own “interim” title and stepped up as US communicator-in-chief, responding quickly to the proposed ban with a video message for TikTok fans as well as regulators. Pappas also called on competitors like Instagram to unite in opposing a download ban as a certain impediment to growth for all players. “We’re here for the long run; continue to share your voice here and let’s stand for TikTok,” she wrote. And while TikTok isn’t out of the woods, its popularity has skyrocketed and its position as a meme maker and platform of choice for the next 15 minutes at least is assured.

Zoom

Bottom line, Zoom was there for us when we needed it. There are better video conference services, and there are certainly more secure ones, but Zoom really delivered when it counted. It scaled rapidly to accommodate surge use, responded quickly to customer concerns, and emerged as the user-friendly leader in a previously commoditized category. Most importantly, its management conveyed concern and took responsibility in the face of technology failures and moved swiftly to correct them. That’s not easy. The human and accessible tone of the brand’s communications really helped millions of new work-from-home teams stay connected, to say nothing of schools and families. Well done.

Pfizer and Moderna

In PR, nothing succeeds like innovation, and first-movers get to claim credit for the long run. Both biopharmaceutical brands earned their status with extraordinary stories of innovation in 2020. Pfizer in particular gets plaudits for the skillful telling of the story of partner BioNTech, founded by the married scientists who are children of Turkish immigrants to Germany and who went on to create the groundbreaking mRNA vaccine against COVID-19. The Sahin-Tureci backstory was a stunning culmination to the race for a vaccine against the ravages of the virus and a real tonic for our weary and cynical souls.

Three Questions A PR Person Should Never Ask A Reporter

As a PR pro, you are constantly communicating with reporters, whether it be pitching, coordinating interviews, or interacting on social media. Staying in contact with relevant contacts is one of the most important aspects of PR. But to maintain these valuable relationships, it’s vital to remember your role and not overstep boundaries. Here are several questions a PR professional should never ask a reporter. 

“Can we have the questions in advance?”

You’ve drafted the perfect pitch, sent it to relevant targets, and now you’ve secured a media interview. Your job is done, right? Not quite. Now it’s the responsibility of the PR person to make sure the spokesperson is as well prepared as possible, including any tough questions the reporter might ask. 

On the PR side, it is best practice to try to anticipate interview questions in advance. This is done by reviewing the reporter’s background, beat, recent articles, any previous conversations you have had, and the tone of conversations to date. Based on this research, PR people typically draft a set of potential questions and may even conduct a practice interview with the client in advance. This idea is to give them as much comfort as possible and produce a positive interview. 

Yet there’s one question PR people shouldn’t ask a reporter: “Can we have the interview questions in advance?” 

This is doubly tricky because many companies, including clients of ours, might reasonably want to know this. Naturally they want to be ready for the exchange. But asking this of a reporter isn’t a good idea. It’s not the journalist’s job to prepare the interviewee, and it looks amateurish.

Preparing for a media interview is almost like getting ready for a final exam – while you don’t know the exact questions, with a bit of research and some homework, you can anticipate most of them and, above all, prepare your own messages and story.

“So, when is this piece going to run?” 

Asking this isn’t terrible, but it can be presumptuous in some circumstances. 

If the reporter has made it clear that a piece is in the works and your comments will be included, it’s important to understand that media have jam-packed editorial schedules and tight deadlines, especially during news cycles filled with breaking stories. Asking a journalist when a certain piece will go live is a little like asking what the weather will be like next week – there may be no real, definite answer, because things change. Sometimes reporters will keep a story in queue for several months, as more urgent, timely pieces have to get out first. 

Rather than continuously following up with the reporter, the PR best practice is to be patient and monitor for it. Keyword alerts and a daily browse of the publication (which we should do anyway) help flag the story as soon as it’s published.  

“Can we see the story before you publish?”

If a journalist has confirmed that a story including your spokesperson’s interview comments is planned, the worst question a PR person can ask might be, “Can we read the story before you publish?” 

Most respectable media outlets will be offended by such a request. Journalists are objective, and offering the story for review can be seen as an invitation to edit or change it, casting doubt on that objectivity. It’s also presumptuous and betrays a lack of understanding of the journalism process. And if they do it for you, they’ll have to do it for everyone — not realistic even if they’re willing! 

Of course, a reporter may contact us to check a quote or verify information, and many publications undergo a rigorous fact-checking process for longer articles. But in general the reporter is relying on us to be accurate the first time. If you’re concerned about quotes during the interview, ask to have them read back to you in that moment. No one wants to get it wrong, which is why PR people work hard to make sure any information we share is accurate and thorough. 

Yet there are times to be assertive

Of course, there are times when a PR representative needs to be assertive with a journalist or push back with requests in our clients’ interest. It may be during tricky negotiations over ground rules for an exclusive interview with a C-level executive, or on the rare occasion when important information is misconstrued or inaccurate. 

A sensitive announcement or a high-stakes interview that impacts corporate reputation may require additional oversight from the PR person to ensure all facts and quotes are accurate. 

Reporters are helping us, not the other way around 

In PR, it’s helpful to foster meaningful and lasting relationships with relevant media contacts. A solid relationship helps ensure you’re top-of-mind when a journalist or producer needs expert commentary for a piece, an introduction to your company or industry, or a quick quote. Being strategic with your communication is key. Overly aggressive pitching, too many follow-ups, or a request to bend the rules will not make you popular. 

How To Make A Killer Content Calendar

In PR, a content calendar is a key part of any public relations plan. For B2B clients like those we represent, it can include the topics and suggested resources for bylined articles, blog posts, social media posts, digital video, and longer-form content like white papers, among other elements. A good content calendar is like a roadmap that helps a brand tell its story. Here are some ways to construct a killer content calendar and get the most out of it.

Start with tentpole events and initiatives

Winging it is not an effective strategy, and taking the time to create a full content calendar will save time and alleviate stress in the long run. When building your calendar, start with upcoming company tentpole events and announcements, then fill in the rest according to seasonal marketing activities and anything else you find relevant. After, you can build out the corresponding content. 

For example, you may plan for a company’s product launch to generate a press release, a social post linking to the press release across social channels, a social post with a top media placement across social channels, and an in-depth blog post for the company website. For social media specifically, quality and quantity combined make for the highest engagement. Companies that publish more than 16 posts a month typically generate three and a half times more traffic than those which publish less than four. Meaning, there should be frequent posts, varying in topics from article promotions to National Cookie Day, if you could think of a way that it’s relevant to your brand. Looking into lesser known holidays that may be relevant to brands in advance can make for fun social media posts!

Be sure to space out announcements

Content calendars are a visual way of seeing what’s in store for the future, making them effective for planning. Seeing all of a brand’s initiatives on paper makes it more obvious if announcements are scheduled too close together, or whether messages compete or overlap. Ideally, you want your messaging to be a progression; for example, a funding announcement, followed by senior-level hires, after which an ambitious new company initiative is unveiled. If news items aren’t planned carefully, the company’s announcements may not get the attention they deserve. Of course, a good plan will take into consideration major news-generating events like Election Day, for example, which should be avoided. Yet most external happenings are unpredictable, so it’s best to build in flexibility but not stress over unexpected events. 

Refresh with formal creative sessions

You may be surprised by the new ideas you can generate when you schedule the time to sit down and think. Throughout the day, projects and deadlines may keep us busy, but forcing a focus on new ways to tell a brand’s story for the next month or quarter can give way to a productive brainstorming session, particularly if you have it with other team members. However, make sure that your meeting is a productive use of time for everyone (a recent study from the Harvard Business Review found that 71% of senior managers said meetings in general are unproductive and inefficient.) During the brainstorm session, do not shut down any ideas, no matter how far-fetched they may seem, as you never know which remark can plant the seed for a great idea. Other tips for a productive brainstorm include coming prepared, creating a time cap, and taking thorough notes.

Measure performance daily

You can actually keep track internally of how many stories a particular company announcement garnered, or how well a social media post performed, right in your content calendar. Of course, every content calendar is different, but tracking the numbers right in the doc may work as a way to stay organized. You can even set goals, and if you fall short, adjust accordingly for the next quarter. Besides Excel and Google Sheets, some other tools for creating content calendars include monday.com, Smartsheet, and Wrike.

Park future ideas so nothing is lost

You can make the most out of your content calendar by using it as a live document and keeping it constantly updated. It’s best to do a formal update once per quarter, according to the business or marketing plan, but you may choose to refresh it far more often. In addition to planned content, you can establish a “parking lot” for ideas and potential topics that may not fit in at the moment but can be useful later. It’s also effective to list social keywords for each piece of content to all creators are on track.

Include client quotes or thoughts

If you plan to newsjack an upcoming event, it can be helpful to get quotes or thoughts from the brand in advance, to be used for a future blog post or even reactive commentary. This can be stored right in your content calendar. By keeping all relevant materials together in one doc, you can prevent these thoughts from getting buried in your inbox. The nature of newsjacking is such that most often you won’t know the news in advance and you’ll have to act swiftly for your brand to be included in media coverage. Yet if you do happen to know of any events that may be relevant, then it’s great to be prepared.

Include competitive messaging

It may make sense to keep track of competitive content or even media coverage in your content calendar, in a separate tab. This makes for easy visualization for how your brand’s messaging and tone should stack up compared to competitors. After all, what we do is all about differentiation. 

Planning and time management are very important in PR, so any system to help stay on track and on schedule is useful. Don’t be discouraged if some ideas are scrapped as things move around – you may even be able to use that content later on! 

7 Ways To Prep A CEO For A Broadcast Interview

For PR pros, landing an on-air interview for a C-suite executive is a big deal. It’s a great way to position a company in front of a large audience, and it’s typically a chance to convey a point of view on a business topic or issue. But what if an executive isn’t fully prepared?

Unless they’re accustomed to giving public interviews and speaking to journalists frequently, there’s a good chance that even senior execs will need some coaching in advance of a key interview. There are several things you can do to ensure that things run smoothly. 

Ask for questions ahead of time…but don’t count on it

Media have different policies about sharing questions ahead of an interview. In general, most don’t. However, since on-air interviews are a different type of exchange, some producers are more flexible and may share the questions beforehand, and they will of course offer details about the interview’s direction. But even if you do receive some advance questions, be mindful that they can change. Broadcast interviewers are famous for pivoting in the moment to ensure their interviews are topical. If there’s a relevant breaking news story on the day of the interview, for example, it may come up. Don’t trust that the questions or even the direction you receive are set in stone, because they probably aren’t. 

Develop the interview’s messaging

Once the interview is set and you’ve provided as much information as possible, schedule a conversation to talk about the interview and to work out the messaging. If the segment is centered around breaking news, there might not be much time to link up, so it’s up to the PR pro to prep the spokesperson within a short time. It’s important not to overdo the messaging or put words in the spokesperson’s mouth. Simply spend a few minutes focusing on two or three of the most important points. The spokesperson should feel free to change any corporate-speak or buzzwords into ordinary language that reflects how normal people speak. If stuck, they can bring the interview back to the key points by flagging them with appropriate phrases like, “the key thing to remember here is…” or, if surprised by a question, “I don’t know about that, but what I can tell you is…” 

Advise them to speak slowly and naturally 

The best on-air interviews are free-flowing and relaxed, yet professional and insightful. One good rule to share is to speak as they would with a family member or friend who is attentive, but not as familiar with the issues discussed as an insider. It should feel like the interview is just two people having a conversation. The best exchanges are educational, allowing the person being questioned to impart valuable information or a relevant point of view. They should also answer without a lot of extraneous information, which can be left for a follow-up question.

Prep for the open-ended question

Sometimes a general question (“Tell me about your career”) can be tricky because the temptation may be to start at the beginning and recite a chronology of events or an overly detailed, rambling response. This is where advance coaching for reverting to a few key fact-based messages can be very helpful. Any top executive, of course, will be ready to discuss the organization and its value proposition, but it’s also helpful to rehearse responses to broad questions about the industry, the business climate, and one’s own background. Remember, topicality is key for broadcast interviewers, so they should lead with the latest and greatest.

Remind them to reference their expertise 

Typically an executive is invited to an interview because they’re seen as a subject-matter expert. It’s helpful to convey that expertise through examples and references to the interviewee’s training or experience. These might include supporting data, strong statements of fact and opinion, or references to the experience that informs their expertise, e.g. 20 years as a research scientist, or three successful startup businesses. Acting confident during the interview and providing well-researched and thought-out information will show the interviewer and folks watching that they’re a valuable information resource. 

Don’t worry about time delays

In the age of Zoom interviews, it’s natural for there to be a slight time lag between the host’s question and the interviewee’s response. It’s easy to accidentally speak over the interviewer, so if it happens, it’s no big deal. Counsel your executive to expect a few glitches, and to simply continue speaking if they happen to overlap, rather than stopping and apologizing. No host likes to interrupt their guest. 

Help them to “think in quotes”

For TV, shorter, punchier responses are strongly preferable to longer, circuitous statements. It’s best to prepare 7-8 second quotable soundbites. It’s also important to lead with the strongest quotes, since live interviews can be cut short, and editors who cut taped exchanges will sometimes grab the first usable quote they find. It’s also helpful to incorporate part of the question into the response, assuming the listener hasn’t heard the full question. Senior execs should never respond to questions with a simple “yes” or “no,” as this makes for a dull interview and doesn’t advance the organization’s story.

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Broadcast interviews are a great way to give a client exposure and credibility by weighing in on current or hot topics. The above are some measures that PR folks can take to ensure they get the most out of these opportunities, with hopes of being asked back in the future.