PR Lessons From The Late, Great Yogi Berra

Media and public relations professionals had a lot to digest this week, from the Pope’s first visit to the U.S. to the Volkswagen diesel fuel scandal, to the passing of the legendary Yankee catcher and coach Yogi Berra. Baseball fan or not, it was hard to miss the quirky character of one of the best loved players of all time. For PR practitioners in New York or any city, there are some PR lessons to be learned from the words of the late, great Yogi Berra.

“It ain’t over till it’s over.” Berra was known to say this about the 1973 pennant race while coaching the Mets, who were in fifth place at the time but rallied to win the National League East title. As anyone who’s hustled for earned media knows, it takes an optimist to go after the big placements, even when prospects are looking slim. The best PR pros know that perseverance delivers, and they actually relish overcoming long shots to come through with a win.

“It’s deja vu all over again.” This was supposedly a response to back-to-back home runs, but experienced media relations teams will likely remark the same thing about certain story angles. There are signature characteristics of a media good story — or classic story plots — that repeat themselves over and over again, and PR people routinely look for those clues in coming up with the right angles to pitch. The best strategies are still hand-crafted, but there is often a bit of deja vu when it comes to what makes a successful story placement.

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” This well-known malapropism was delivered to a graduating class at Montclair State, and the advice — nonsensical as it may seem — can ring true as a call for PR professionals to be decisive. We’re often looked to as consultants and asked for advice in dealing with any number of communications dilemmas. It’s important for PR advisers to be able to face dueling alternatives and make an informed, clear recommendation and stick to the adopted strategy.

“You can observe a lot by watching.” Being a good media relations professional can be a lot like being a good reporter, and it takes a keen sense of observation to do it well. Careful watching, listening, and paying attention to fine detail as well as the overarching themes all serve the PR professional well, distinguishing him or her from the novice.

“Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” As with popular restaurants, well-used publicity strategies can become overused to the point of losing their effectiveness. When certain tactics are past their prime, the savvy public relations adviser knows when to move on to something new.

5 Things You Should Never Ask Of A PR Agency

A successful partnership with a PR agency should fill needs and solve problems in creative, strategic and mutually beneficial ways, and a good PR firm will go the extra distance to please. There are times, however, when clients need to know what’s not appropriate to ask of their agency. So, how does a business know what’s off limits? With apologies to Stacey and Clinton, here are five examples of “What Not To Ask.”

Don’t ask your PR firm to perform (media) miracles. More than once a client has demanded that their PR agency commit to generating a certain number of national story placements, or to guarantee coverage in a specific outlet. If only it were that simple! Work with an agency partner to establish realistic media relations KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and appropriate story angles.

Don’t ask your agency to take on tasks better suited to others. At times PR agency staff are asked to run interference with unhappy customers, give the boss a hair or wardrobe makeover, or weigh in on a personal crisis. Now, some agencies can and do offer specialized services that go far beyond strategy and media relations, but if that’s not the case, or if the task is better suited to a personal assistant (or friend!), it’s best to collaborate with others. Agency teams are selling their talent and their time, and neither should be wasted.

Don’t ask your PR partner to arbitrarily lower their fees. Agencies plan and budget according to formulas that guarantee consistent service to clients. Sometimes a client has a good or unavoidable reason to ask for a fee reduction (lower than projected sales, changes in management, etc.) but in these cases, they should expect the service level and outcomes to change. Agencies are in business to make a profit, just as their client companies are.

Don’t ask your PR team to “borrow” someone else’s ideas. Presumably, you chose the agency based on their own merits, so let them develop the strategy and creative tactics. Just because a particular creative approach worked before doesn’t guarantee that it will catch fire for a second or third round.  On the other hand, if a client believes the agency is driven more by their own egos than the client needs, they should cut bait.

Don’t ask your agency to do anything immoral or insulting. This includes pulling your agency partner into competitive research that has morphed into “industrial espionage” or asking them to take the blame for a mistake that wasn’t theirs. It can also include being asked to share a hotel room with a person of the opposite sex in the name of cost-savings (yes, this actually happened!). Also, as we’ve all learned from the Brian Williams fiasco, lying or even obfuscating is never a good strategy. In the digital age, untruths are usually exposed, and the damage may be lasting.

Interested in knowing more? Let’s start from the beginning! Download our tipsheet, 9 Ways To Know You’ve Found The Right PR Firm, and start off on the right foot with your new PR partner.

Download Tipsheet

A Journalist’s View: 3 Questions From A PR Firm

Geoff Williams, a personal finance and business writer who pens probing pieces for U.S. News & World Report and American Express OPEN Forum, understands the PR agency dynamic quite well. I have had the pleasure of working with him for years, and he agreed to take a few questions – the answers to which should help any PR person improve their media relationships.

What’s a big challenge you regularly face that a PR person can help with? Time.  When someone saves me time in some way, it’s like a little gift. A great timesaver that PR people can provide is to offer up all the possible information I will need on their client ahead of an interview. Not just name and title, but where, geographically, they work and a few other details so I don’t have to go hunting it down on the website (websites are often incomplete, outdated or contain inaccuracies!) Be as specific as you can. You can’t overload on the details, even if some end up edited out. Mention specialties, use “branding” language. I will try to provide the most detailed description for your client.  One more thing about time. I have mixed feelings about conference call interviews. I do them sometimes, but they seem to add a layer of lengthy time, as opposed to simply providing a phone number for your client.

How much do deadlines influence what stories you decide to write? There are two types of deadline in a writer’s world: deadlines from editors, and society’s deadlines. The holidays are coming, so that’s a deadline.  I look at the calendar for inspiration when I’m trying to come up with article ideas. Those are the deadlines that influence me the most. The deadlines that I have with my editor just makes me crazed and harried. So, back to society’s deadlines; just because it’s back-to-school time, or it’s Black Friday, doesn’t automatically mean I’ll write an article about it. It helps to tweak the angle, so it’s a genuine twist on a known holiday or time period. Just know that I don’t always write about them since my editors may have many other writers pitching those same stories.

How much does it matter to you if competitors have written about topics you’re considering? It really doesn’t matter to me. I focus mostly on personal finance and business articles, and it’s virtually impossible not to cover topics that competitors have written about in some way.  I will say that when I receive a mass emailed pitch, or any pitch that appears mass emailed, I do look at it skeptically because I know that if I go for it, 10 other writers or editors may be jumping on it, too.

And while it doesn’t bother me that a competitor has written about some topic before, you do feel kind of foolish if you see someone you’ve interviewed in another article from a competitor within the same week.  I understand that PR people are presumably under pressure to get their clients media coverage, and I can understand why they blanket the world with a pitch. But when I see those email pitches that were obviously sent to dozens of media people, I don’t exactly get excited about what I’m reading. I don’t envy a PR person’s job. I’m sure we make it tough on all of you!

Five Things Clients Should Never Do To Their PR Agencies

When a client retains a PR firm, it is with the best of intentions. The company has an important business story to tell, a new consumer product launch or an issues battle to win. But often, good intentions are thwarted when the rubber meets the road. Perspectives change, personality traits come to fore and soon both parties are strategizing to keep the relationship productive and successful. Here are five things clients should think about NOT doing to help foster and preserve the successful client-agency relationship.

Set aside an unrealistic budget for PR

Public relations should never be an afterthought. It’s not productive to think we can “carve out a little money” for a few months of PR. Successful, change and results-driven strategic PR requires the same thoughtful process and budgeting that any other marketing discipline does within an organization. In a situation when a PR relationship is working well and the agency is told, “we have to cut PR,” all that wonderful media momentum stops and reputation-building efforts go back to zero. Something to think about when creating a smart marketing budget.

Contact reporters without informing your agency

Please don’t reach out to reporters directly or send out media pitches without informing your agency. Turn over media requests for the agency to vet first. With rare exception (a contact is an old friend, etc.) clients who talk to the press sans PR guidance can find themselves answering questions they’d rather not or submitting to interviews that miss the audience entirely.

Expand the scope of work, but not the fee

Frankly, this is an agency issue as well. The documents which guide the account (proposal, plan, LOA) should always clearly delineate what is covered by the retainer or project fee. When in doubt, refer to these to keep both parties on track. It behooves everyone to increase work and accomplish more as long as compensation matches expectation!

Keep your concerns to yourself

It’s counterproductive to do a slow burn about an agency issue and inform no one! Most agency-clients concerns can be nipped in the bud and fixed if addressed early enough.

Position anyone NOT in communications or marketing to manage the PR relationship

It happens with smaller or less experienced clients that anyone from CEO to COO and various other titles will manage the PR relationship. This can often lead to misunderstandings about the role and fits and starts with projects. It is helpful to speak the same language when translating marketing goals into PR initiatives.

Does This PR Firm Make Me Look Fat? How To Know If Your Agency Is A Fit

Is a little voice telling you that you and your current PR agency are suffering from the business equivalent of the seven-year itch? Are you “growing apart”? Could they be “just not that into you,” or vice versa? There are warning signs that it may be time to re-evaluate and get a fresh start with a different PR agency partner.

Is your current PR firm serving up tired ideas? Or, worse, none? If you’ve provided a steady stream of company news and the agency still hasn’t devised new ways to gain positive exposure, your relationship may have maxed out.

Has your agency grown (or downsized) and you feel neglected? First, communicate this to your account director or the agency head and make sure your concerns are heard. Give the agency a chance to course-correct, but be aware that it may be a sign your company needs a different kind of partner who can service your business more attentively.

Has your company marketing strategy changed dramatically? If so, it may be time to audit your current agency’s capabilities to see if they are still a fit for you. Once again, start by having an honest discussion with your firm. You don’t want to end the relationship without careful consideration, especially if the agency has done great work, your teams mesh, and the key players know your business inside and out.

Do you and your agency fundamentally disagree on direction? Obviously you didn’t retain a PR firm to act as “yes” men to each of your ideas, but as the client you need an ultimate  meeting of the minds on strategic decisions. If you keep encountering resistance and cannot find a middle ground in your PR planning, this may be the time to consider a change.

Have you set reasonable expectations that just aren’t being met? At the outset of any client-agency relationship there must be consensus on goals and anticipated outcomes. Of course, these change throughout the course of a campaign and must be re-aligned and approved by the teams. If your agency partner isn’t delivering on agreed-upon goals and isn’t providing a sound enough explanation, the relationship will certainly suffer. Take steps to address as a team and if you can’t achieve satisfactory resolution, it will be time to look into some other counsel. Sometimes a fresh start is best for all parties.

If you conduct a search and your incumbent agency stands no chance for consideration, let them know, but if they could be a contender,  set a high bar and see what you get!

Why You Need To Hire A PR Firm Now

Even if your hot ad/tech business isn’t being acquired today for millions of dollars or you aren’t quite ready to launch your latest sure-to-wow consumer product, you may still need to consider professional PR counsel for your company. Here are some good reasons why:

You are being left out of a story right now. Without a dedicated PR team representing your interests with vigilance, that next round-up story on your industry’s products, or leaders or POV will occur without you.

It’s a whole new media world. And who has time for that with running a business and managing employees, etc? A professional PR firm is up on trends like native advertising and the latest blogger campaigns as well as the art of traditional story placement and selling in a byline article. Media contacts come and go, as do outlets, and the best PR pros know this world inside and out.

Writing for PR is an art and a science. Just like a book publisher choosing the most compelling fiction “pitch”, the editor of a top site or magazine is looking for the most compelling, intriguing communiques, summing up a client story that begs for a deeper look. You need agency representation dedicated to understanding your messages, crafting story angles and communicating them in a way that works to pique media interest.

In the event of a reputation threat. You want to be prepared for anything. Does your company have an up-to-date crisis plan? Was it vetted by a PR practitioner? Based on historical crises large and small, industry experts agree that a team with relevant experience is invaluable to your organization in the event your brand is subject to negative coverage or criticism.

“I’ll just have my intern handle social media” doesn’t cut it. Sure, your college intern will know the mechanics of posting to Facebook and tweeting, but would you want to give such an important task as content development to someone who doesn’t thoroughly understand your business, your positioning and your company “voice?” Using social media successfully takes a combination of pop culture and industry savvy, strategic know-how, research, and understanding of each platform’s role in promoting your business. Leave this work to a professional!

5 Steps For Selling PR To Management

2014. New year, new goals and opportunities for companies to launch products, forge identities or re-brand. What better way for a consumer marketing pro to accomplish some of these tasks than to partner with the right public relations firm?

If you find yourself in this position, here are some of the best ways to gain executive support for hiring external PR counsel.

PR by the numbers. Do your homework and frame the case for retaining a PR firm by demonstrating how positive PR and reputation management can impact awareness, customer attitudes, and website traffic. PR is a discipline that brings vital information back into an organization for analysis and action. It has real, measurable impact on the achievement of strategic organizational goals.

Gain buy-in from peers first. Before you take your sales effort up the chain, move laterally, approaching managers in other divisions who will benefit from PR counsel and impact. In so doing, you will gain important support as well as see what kind of roadblocks you may face when approaching the C-suite.

Consider the opportunity cost of not having an agency partner. Organizations without a professional media relations strategy are in danger of being overlooked and disregarded.  Those without representation can miss out on opportunities to be part of larger conversations that can positively impact reputation and brand building, consumer engagement, sales generation, issues management and constituent attitudes and behaviors.

Know your company’s PR track record. Has the PR function always been in-house or has the marketing team historically “burned through” firms that weren’t right for them? Knowing how your organization has handled public relations in the past can inform how you package your external support “ask” today.

What’s in it for management? Finally, know how to sell in outside agency services beyond the benefits to company and product image. Tell your CEO what personal and professional gains can be realized through a strategic thought leadership campaign. These can include industry recognition via byline articles and corporate speaking appearances as well as broadcast and other interview opportunities to make leadership more well known to customers and the public at large.

Make sure your company realizes its full potential in 2014.

5 New Year’s Resolutions for Better PR Agency-Client Collaboration

Typically, a consumer or B2B PR firm will put forth some resolutions to improve agency performance and delivery on key strategic communications plans. As we approach the beginning of 2014, we offer up a few recommendations for the agency-client team to make for a truly fruitful relationship in the New Year and beyond.

Be fearless in critiquing work. In a positive, constructive way. Quantify your critique with some hard facts and never bring up a problem without offering potential solutions to course-correct. Most importantly, don’t let your ego get in the way of valuable feedback.

Work smarter and faster. As a team, anticipate critical dates and what your competition may do. Create tight, yet workable deadlines that always keep your client’s work ahead of the pack. Dynamism is often the key to re-energizing and improving agency-client outcomes.

Shake up the tools in the toolbox. Tools can mean agency team members (is it time to rotate in a new player with a valuable skill set?) or tactical PR “weaponry.” Consider this, is a competitor doing something attention-worthy that must be countered? Is it time to re-assess how the company announces news? Consider tossing the typical press release in exchange for something more social-media minded, if appropriate.

Remember Ed Koch. New York PR pros know that the famous mayor strode down the streets of Manhattan asking locals “How am I doing?” This is an excellent question that PR agencies and clients should ask of each other on a regular basis. Both parties will benefit from the honest exchange.

Own the data. Significant and often, edgy, research can be the key to which story is reported on, or which spokesperson is chosen for an interview. PR agencies and clients should strive to own stats of interest to media and target audiences. Collaborating on research projects can also strengthen the bond as you both become even more well-informed about a client’s industry and business.

Here’s to a year full of successful PR agency-client collaborations. Get started, the clock is ticking!

What Top PR Firms Want for the Holidays

Whether your PR firm specializes in consumer PR or B2B, tech or travel, we bet you have a holiday wish list. We can’t help you with the naughty or nice part (like the wrapped Ryan Gosling here), but we do have some ideas for fantasy gifts in a more professional PR vein. Here’s what made the cut this season.

Auto-Strategy Builder
A gift that keeps on giving – an account team plugs in all the information after a client data dump and brainstorm and a computer program provides a brilliant strategic communications brief!

Wearable Tech Media Monitor
The latest and greatest in wearable tech, this Jawbone-style bracelet for the PR pro alerts you when a media contact needs a source for a story. Then, when the story hits and includes your client’s quotes perfectly, the device measures your accelerated pulse and heart rate!

Is there anything better than hijacking a holiday for publicity gain? With Have-a-Holiday, you needn’t wait for “National Pound Cake Day” or “Buzzard Day” (really, that exists) Conveniently turn any day into the day YOU need to publicize some important client messaging.

Proposal Wizard
Not that any top PR agency ever writes anything “off the shelf,” but wouldn’t it be swell if you could take your brilliant strategy and an app could whip out some tactics, newsbureau description, budgeting and some of the other more mundane aspects of proposal writing, leaving your team to dream up all the creative ways to tell your client’s story?

Meeting Clone
And its companion product, Conference Call Clone for those of us who just have too many meetings to attend!

But let’s not forget what the holidays are truly about.  ‘Tis better to give than receive, after all, so remember to thank your colleagues for their hard work and support, appreciate a client who went out of his way to get a bold PR initiative approved, and be grateful to a media contact for a well-crafted story.

The Case For The Independent Agency

Smaller and independent ad and PR agencies like to tout their size and status as a competitive advantage. The problem with some of those claims is that they can boil down to cost, and the message too easily becomes, “Hire us and pay less for essentially the same creative service, or a better publicity result.”

Depending on the client and its needs, these can be valid claims. In the PR world, if your budget is less than half a million annually, you’ll probably be better off with a smaller, independent firm. But I’d like to think there are other reasons for bringing on an agency that’s not owned by an ad conglomerate, a holding company, or a marketing network.

Value. Yes, the typical structure of the independent firm is likely to maximize service for the investment. A large-firm structure is usually a triangle, with a few highly compensated and experienced practitioners at the top and a wide base of junior staffers at the bottom. Which means the typical account team blended billing rate is that of an Account Executive, usually someone with a year or two of experience. By contrast, an independent agency is more likely to have more experienced staffers running accounts, if only by virtue of having fewer layers.

Senior talent. The account team triangle isn’t necessarily a bad bet for clients. That depends on the allocation of senior-level time and attention. After all, it doesn’t make sense for someone with a 30-year track record to be doing media monitoring or compiling lists. But the problem with highly layered firms is that big overhead adds up to constant pressure to “feed the beast.” Most senior officers are consumed with chasing new business, not servicing clients.

Personalized service. This is where I’ve most often experienced the difference between a multinational firm with hundreds of clients and a small or midsize owner-operated agency.  Some say larger firms are more likely to offer off-the-shelf or template-based programs, simply because they have to. I’m not sure about that, but in my experience, it’s after the contract is signed that the personal touch disappears. The economics of a multi-faceted agency simply mitigate against deep senior-level involvement, and turnover among less experienced staff hinders continuity at other levels. Independent agencies have greater control over their operations, by definition.

Independent thinking. This is another way of saying “autonomy,” and it can be a subtle advantage. Yet in many ways it’s the most critical, since the most valuable creative offering of any agency is its talent and depth of thinking. After more than 20 years in PR, including a stint at the PR unit of a large ad agency, it’s my belief that ad and marketing teams don’t understand PR programming beyond the lowest-common-denominator of publicity results or the urgency of crisis response. There are exceptions to this, however. The lines continue to blur among digital marketing, social media, advertising, and PR companies. Yet the most successful PR campaigns depend on an innate understanding of  the practice.

A great idea can come from anywhere, of course. And the lines are blurring, to the benefit of everyone in the marketing picture. But the starkly different economics among the paid and earned media models usually mean the paid-media guys control the bigger budgets, and he who has the larger pocketbook usually prevails when it comes to pushing creative product on a client.

Of course, the challenge for independent firms in the PR industry lies in pressing our advantage. Too often, we rely on the value proposition to win clients, or we fail to leverage our more powerful tools and talents to benefit clients and our own teams. I’d like to think that for an independent PR agency, at least, the cost-value relationship is only the beginning of the case we make to clients, employees, and ourselves.