Back to the Basics, storytelling, Strategy & Tactics

Every Company Needs a TRUTH Management Plan

As a PR pro, one of the most frequently asked questions you’ll get asked from a client is “What’s our crisis plan?” Every company dreads a crisis. They are bad for business. I firmly believe that most companies are absolutely concerned about the safety or well being of their employees and customers, but make no mistake; the bottom line is always top-of-mind for a client when they inquire about The Crisis Plan.

Handling a Crisis is really where the pros separate themselves from the amateurs. Everybody knows the basic steps, and it’s OK to have your own slight variation/cadence, as long as they are built around the core principles. For the sake of this post, I’ve bundled the main pillars of handling a crisis below.

  1. Plan for the worst

It’s important to prepare for any number of possible scenarios so that when the real world situation occurs, you can be as ready as possible. Nothing can truly prepare you for the real thing but as the saying goes, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Developing a plan upon the emergence of the crisis is almost certain death. Know the issues, the players, the communications methods and the best ways to use them.

  1. Listen and gather

The last thing you want to do is turn something into a crisis when it’s merely an issue. There is a stark difference between the two. What may seem like a big deal when you receive a salvo of customer complaints on social media may turn out to be a minor issue that can be dealt with without blowing it out of proportion unnecessarily.

Whether you’re dealing with a fleeting issue or a full blown crisis, as soon as you are alerted, you should begin gathering g all of the facts. Reach out to trust worthy people who are closest to the situation and demand the unfiltered truth. This process should continue all the way until the fecal matter has stopped falling from the fan.

  1. Isolate and form

When a crisis occurs the last thing you want is misinformation leaving the building. At the earliest possible point, alert all customer facing employees of the situation and make them aware of the situation, if they aren’t already. Tell them that you have engaged your crisis response team. Reiterate the importance of the right information getting to the public and ask that they let the experts communicate that information appropriately. Every employee is a potential PR representative in the time of a crisis, whether you like it or not. Treat them as such.

While this is happening you should be gathering your crisis communications team. You’ll be training your spokesperson, which depending on the severity of the crisis should be as close to the top of the house as possible, and doing all you can to make sure that there is one consistent voice speaking publicly about the situation.

  1. Emerge from behind the curtain

While full message development necessitates gathering ALL of the facts, which can take time, a holding statement shows stakeholders (press, employees, public, and customers) that you are aware of the situation, that you are concerned, and that you are taking action. Basically, it shows that you are human, which goes a long way during trying times. A good holding statement will buy you precious time to gather all the necessary facts and may keep the media at bay while you do so.

  1. Communicate… like, really communicate

This is where the purpose of this post emerges. As PR pros we can spin any number of explanations about what it is we do for a living: We build and manage reputations. We shape images and public opinion. We influence influencers and mold public opinion… blah, blah, blah. As PR pros are role is simple: we get information from point A to point B. We are experts, who earn our living by having the expertise to know how to get the right information to the right audience in a meaningful, impactful way. But at the end of the day that’s it. Point A to point B.

That’s the goal of your Crisis Plan. After you’ve planned, formed your teams, trained your spokespeople and gathered all the facts, you communicate the information to the stakeholders involved.

In Jason Vines book, What Did Jesus Drive: Crisis PR in Cars, Computers and Christianity, the PR guy behind some of the most volatile automotive industry crises, he sums it all up in one brilliant sentence:

“Speculating is a hand grenade and, of course, lying is suicide,” as he succinctly puts it.

What are your thoughts on a crisis plan? What are some of the most important components?

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Back to the Basics, Social Media

The Winner of the 2014 BuzzWell PR “Did I Do That?” Social Media Awards is…

There’s a level of irony somewhere in the fact that the winner of this year’s award – an award represented by the loveable and aloof character of a popular 80-90’s family sitcom – was himself the star of the show that paved the way for sitcoms like Family Matters.

On November 10th, Bill Cosby (his social team)  posted a photo of himself on Twitter inviting the Internet to meme him.

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Good idea, right? Memes are all the rage these days… the kids love ’em. And with such a loveable character like Cosby, this kind of stunt could only magnify his already popular persona. Unfortunately for Cosby, this coincided with the resurgence of rape allegations against the 77-year-old actor thanks in part to comedian, Hannibal Buress, who had been touring with a new standup act that dedicated a portion of the skit to the allegations. Buress actually prompted those who couldn’t fathom Cosby would commit such horrid acts to see it for themselves, saying “If you didn’t know about it, when you leave here, Google ‘Bill Cosby rape.’ It’s not funny”.

Suffice to say, asking the internet, which had started to become abuzz with chatter relating to the alleged crimes, to go ahead and create their memes was a really, reallllly terrible idea. Cosby’s short-sighted PR folks probably expected the memes to be wholesome interpretations of Cosby’s goofy humor. Wrong. This is what they got instead:

resize“Fans” used the web tool to highlight past accusations against Cosby, and lots of them. Just as with #Imametsfanbecause back in September, yet another social media campaign backfired in spectacular fashion.

So what was the science used to determine the award should go to Cosby and his PR? It was a calculation of sheer stupidity X cluelessness.

In order to be an effective PR person you have to know your client. Whether they are a person or an institution, you must know their past present and the direction in which they wish to go. You are tasked to promote and protect their reputation amidst any confluence of events that might jeopardize it.

This instance, like so many others, could have been avoided entirely if just a little brain power was applied. Case in point: the allegations against Cosby are not new, they’ve been around for years, surfacing here and there, only to fade away under Cosby’s indelible role as one of America’s most loveable dads. As Cosby’s PR team, you should know this and avoid any action that may trigger the scandal to become newsworthy again. What they did was just the opposite.

So, for excising zero intelligence and ignoring all the basics of PR, congratulations to Cosby and team on taking this year’s top spot.

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2015 might be a rough one for Bill. And for his social team, this sums it up perfectly:

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Maybe you can form a group with all the other nominees and go on a redemption tour to educate budding PR pros on exactly what NOT to do.

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Back to the Basics, Social Media

“Did I Do That?” 2nd Annual Social Media Awards: Runner-up, Elizabeth Lauten

As a public relations spokesperson, one must act with an abundance of caution in both their personal and professional lives. It’s simply a prerequisite for the job. In the political realm, the most scrutinized arena in our society, the age old adage think before you speak is something that the wise live by and the foolish wish they had.

Elizabeth Lauten, the communications director for Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.) would fall in the latter category of those who did not heed that sage advice. She resigned last month after causing quite the stir with the following Facebook post that criticized Malia and Sasha Obama’s appearance at the annual White House turkey pardon ceremony.

td4_elizaMs. Lauten, really??? Using someone’s children to throw a political punch?

These type of incidents make me wonder how in the world these people got as far as they did. A Communications Director for a US congressman is not an easy job. It requires thick skin, light feet and the ability to artfully position the congressman and your party in a favorable light under some really tough circumstances. This kind of blunder betrays the most basic fundamentals of public relations and the understanding that as a spokesperson, everything you do and say will reflect on the people you work for.

And this wasn’t Ms. Lauten’s first social media gaffe either. In August she posted a tweet about “shagging” from Mr. Fincher’s official Twitter account.

“God I love this song. And beach music. AND shagging #pandora,” Ms. Lauten tweeted in reference to an Embers playlist on Pandora radio.

She later deleted the tweet and apologized for the accident, clarifying that “shagging” is a dance term, not a sexual reference.

“It had nothing to do with Stephen Fincher. I don’t think he knows what Pandora is; he certainly doesn’t have it,” Ms. Lauter said, according to Politico.

In response to her attack on the Obama teens, Lauten posted the following apology on Facebook:

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Too little, too late. Not only the post make you and your party look like bullies willing to stoop so low as to bash someone’s children in order to get a cheap shot in, it also cost you a job, and probably won’t make it easy for you to find a new one.

 Ms. Lauten’s resolution for 2015: Think before you post.
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Back to the Basics, branding, storytelling

Build a Brand – Not a Business

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The difference between a brand and a business is stark. Businesses sell products to consumers while brands interact with people and enter into relationships. In today’s heavily saturated markets, relevance and interaction are key to achieving loyalty and advocacy. People need something deeper than transactions and products to feel satisfied – that’s where a brand comes in.

Simply put, a brand is what your business represents in the collective mind of your customers. Think of the brand as the sensory system that transforms your lifeless, transactional business into a living-breathing organism, able to connect with the human psyche and elicit real, often irrational, emotions. These emotional cues become the symbolic currency that people actually trade when they transact with a business. Brands are built from common elements, including:

Purpose:

A brand has a higher purpose than the desire to sell goods or services to make a buck. A brand’s purpose is the human value of what your products and services provide. For example, if you’re a startup in the currently hot Robo-Advisor space, your purpose is not to sell clients stocks or mutual funds that outperform benchmarks, but to help your clients on the road to financial empowerment so they can lead more fulfilling lives. Purpose is often the way to achieve relevance in the mind of the customer.

Character:

A business with a brand understands who they are. A business with a great brand understands who they are not. Each of us is distinguishable from the other six billion people on earth through the individualities that make up our persona. Think of any brand (i.e. Apple) as a person – imagine what characteristics they’d have if you met them in Starbucks. Would you want to talk with them? What would you talk about? How would you represent yourself in their presence? These are the same questions prospective customers ask when choosing a company to do business with.

Consistency:

As customers and prospects develop a relationship with a brand over time, they also develop expectations. Customers’ expectations are formed through their experience with the company’s products, marketing communications, and level of customer service. The moment a company breaks consistency, people will feel abandoned and actually more disappointed than if the brand had never existed to begin with. Consistency allows a brand to develop meaning over time and gives customers familiarity in how they feel about their interactions with the brand.

These are just some of the important elements that separate a brand from a business. A lot of research, assessment, introspection, and honesty is necessary to make the transformation from a business to a brand. Many startups don’t have the resources, time or attention to dedicate to a comprehensive brand campaign. However, there is a step that any business, regardless of age or development, can take in order to begin the journey towards developing a real brand that customers will identify with: Brand Narrative.

I read an interesting story in INC. recently that talked about the importance of startups developing a company or brand story. This excerpt really struck a chord in me:

Indeed, many VCs think of themselves as investors in stories, and storytellers, every bit as much as investors in companies. “How well does the founder’s life explain what they’re doing at their company?” asks Scott Weiss, a general partner at Silicon Valley venture firm Andreessen Horowitz.

So, how do you get started? Simple. Ask yourself these three questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I doing this? Think long and hard about why you’ve dedicated countless hours, and sacrificed so much to bring your ideas to fruition. Much of it will come naturally. Once you have the answers, share them with your colleagues – with everyone for that matter – and develop the story until it starts to makes its way organically into everything you do, from communications all the way to sales. Eventually, your story will start telling itself, attracting listeners and customers and transforming your business into a what you need for success – a brand.

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Back to the Basics, Social Media, Strategy & Tactics, Tools

PR Must Evolve or Die… Start with the Obvious

I recently retweeted a story from Deborah L. Jacobs (@djworking) of Forbes and thought I’d take some time to highlight why it caught my attention. One of my last posts was about the lessons they don’t teach in PR 101 – Deborah’s piece highlights more valuable lessons that at least weren’t taught in the classes I took in college. Mind you, that was all the way back in the early 2000’s, before Twitter existed! There should be, and hopefully are classes today exclusively geared toward Twitter and PR. Hmm… more blog post fodder?

Deborah’s piece raises what hopefully is old news to most of us: the days of Edward Bernays and the press officer/manipulator extraordinaire, kicked the bucket long ago. If we want to survive and thrive as PR pros we have to get with the times. Recently, I had a conversation with a fellow PR pro and told him, rather frankly, that he had to stop treating social media like it was this new ‘thing’ he was trying to harness to keep up with a trend. Instead, he should treat it the same as email or the press release: another tool to get our jobs done. It is something that should fold into our daily activities, not something we force in clumsily to look like we are keeping up with the cool kids.

No too long ago, I covered the importance of building relationships with reporters. In her piece, Deborah points out that there are approximately six press agents for every journalist; imagine how many emails reporters are getting on a daily basis from folks just like you vying for a spot in their publications. In order to break through the clutter and build relationships you need to present yourself as a valuable source, not just an opportunist. Grant your journalist contacts unfettered access to the folks who would be most helpful to them – executives, clients, customers, etc. Let them speak to these people on their terms and decide for themselves if they have something to contribute that would make their  jobs easier, their stories better and their audience more engaged. You can’t just go spamming willy-nilly and hope to get coverage! I’m not saying that I don’t send the occasional one-off pitch to reporters that I don’t know, but even those are sent with as much intelligence and research behind them as possible. And when you do send those types of pitches, heed Deborah’s sage advice: “understand that no reply to a pitch means “No,” that follow-up by phone or email is ineffective…”

When I first started in PR, I would be disheartened by the terse, unfriendly and often times, rude responses I’d get from journalists when I‘d call them with a pitch. Years later, I realize where those responses came from. I’d be pretty annoyed myself if I got 20 misdirected phone calls throughout the day when I’m trying to do my job. I’d look at those people as pests, not sources.

Ms. Jacobs also makes the point that “a blizzard of press releases about studies that are statistically flawed or restate the obvious…” and forced, biased angles aren’t what journalists are looking for. They want news. This is something that is surprisingly overlooked these days. Think of the journalist as providing a service for their readers. In Deborah’s case, she provides her readers with information on the personal finance issues that are “keeping them up at night.” Before you reach out to a reporter, put yourself in their reader’s shoes. Is there value in this for them, or just for your client?  If it’s just for your client then it probably isn’t news and not something you should bother the reporter with.

Deborah suggests that it is time for PR to change its “long-entrenched industry practices.” I agree, with some qualification: the traditional tools of the PR professional will never go out of style as long as they are used correctly and not abused. News releases, pitches, media tours and even cold calls have their place in this field. But a shift does need to take place for those who haven’t already adapted. The first step is to stop spending so much time and energy on ourselves and focus on our audience. Only then can we take the necessary strides to ensure our services will not be rendered obsolete.

What else can we do to be more effective PR pros as the landscape continues to evolve? How can we become more valuable to journalists and influencers?

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Back to the Basics, Strategy & Tactics

Make Your Pitches Readable not Deleteable

A major job responsibility for us fellow flacks, and one that has one of the biggest learning curves, is pitching the media via email. Convincing reporters that he or she should take time out of their insanely busy schedules to pen an article about our company, amidst the hundreds of other companies the reporter is being asked to do the same for daily. This is no easy task, and as most forms of communications do, takes years to master.

There are some very important basics to pitching journalists and bloggers, many of them commonsensical:

Research Your Audience

Your pitch should be highly targeted and relevant to each individual reporter you send it to. Spam is one of the quickest relationship killers. One of the most important pieces of wisdom a fellow PR practitioner and buddy of mine told me some years ago is, “You’re only as good as your media list.” Your pitching efforts are futile if you haven’t spent the necessary amount of time researching and preparing your media list targets.

Tailor Your Pitch

Craft each pitch you send with the specific recipient in mind. Prove your desire to be helpful to them through referencing past stories or areas of interest they have. This will keep you from coming across as entirely self-serving in your attempts to get coverage.

Don’t Overwrite

Your reader is very likely to to press “delete” after the first drawn out sentence.  As Mark Twain said, choose the right word and not “it’s second cousin.” As I’ve said in previous posts, superfluity kills. Journalists are not looking to discover new writing talent; they are looking for stories that will be interesting and helpful for their readers.

Be Authentic

Treat your pitch the same as you would a conversation in real life. Would you feel comfortable saying what you write in your pitch in person? Does it reflect you and the company you work for in a positive light? Is it considerate of the other party in the relationship and their needs?

Now, here are some lesser discussed, but equally important tips,  that will help your pitches get read instead of deleted. Consider these tips from PR 201:

Don’t be Predictable

Reporters are a very intelligent bunch. They are analytical, insightful, thorough creatures who are adept at detecting bullshit. Rest assured that the reporter you are targeting has seen your pitch before. Maybe the company is different and the product has some slight variations, but you can believe they’ve receive dozens of similar pitches from hopeful PR Pros. There is nothing new under the sun. The way we separate ourselves from the masses is highlighting our nuances and differences. Find unique angles the reporter may not have considered before. If he or she hasn’t thought of something you can bet it would be new and interesting for their readers to hear about – which means YOU’RE IN.

Subject Lines Rule

Like any form of copy – headlines are arguably the most important part of your writing. They are the key to opening the door and persuading your reader to read on. For emails – your subject line is often what a reporter will go on in determining whether or not to click “delete” or “open”. And believe me, this decision is made in a few short seconds. Make your subject line intriguing, specific and concise.  If you work for a well-known company you have the luxury of name dropping in your subject line and your chances of getting your email at least opened increase automatically. If this isn’t the case, then the subject line rule is even more important.  Send out a couple of pitches, if you’re not getting responses in a reasonable time, tweak the headline and try again. This is a learning process; a lot of it is trial and error.

End the Pitch Gloriously

Often times, we are prone to trailing off in our witting. We hit the reader with a furious one-two combo of information and persuasion in the opening sentences and think that we’ve done or jobs. That’s not the case. As the great ATL rap group, Outkast, so elegantly said “You’re only funky as your last cut.” The last sentence of your pitch should be as strong as the first couple. This is will strengthen the chances of the reporter following up to learn more. Try hard to keep them locked in to each sentence.

Marathon Mentality

Your job as a PR Pro is to build symbiotic relationships with members of the media and influencers. These relationships will generate publicity and help you manage your company’s messages publicly. Like any real-world relationship, the relationship between the PR Pro and the reporter/blogger/influencer  needs fostering in order to thrive. You may not get a prominent story above the fold off of your first pitch but you very well may have set the groundwork for a relationship that will grow overtime if cared for properly. Keep feeding it and don’t smother it.

Pitching is one of those things that really takes a lot of time to master. I treat each pitch as learning experience. Each word is part of a strategy to not only get coverage or raise visibility, but to nurture a long-term relationship. What are some pitching tips or tricks that help you?

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Back to the Basics, Social Media, Strategy & Tactics, Tools

#FridayFive – 5 Tips to Writing Better Headlines

As a communications pro, writing is one of our core functions. It’s essential to our jobs and value and something we should constantly strive to improve. In today’s world of social media and blogging, one of the most important skills to master, or try to, is the art of the headline. One of the most insightful things I’ve learned about copy writing is that your headline is the beginning of what should be a continuously slippery slide. Each word should push the reader further and further down the slide until they’ve finished your content. Here are 5 tips to help you make your headlines work for you.

Be Creative

We see hundreds, if not thousands of headlines a day but only engage with a handful. Creativity helps separate your headline from all of the rest.  The NYP, while distasteful with some, is masterful at penning creative headlines that suck you right it.

Intrigue Your Readers

Think of yourself as a fisherman. You want to give just enough bait for the fish but don’t want to reveal what’s above the surface because they won’t bite. Here’s an example of an intriguing headline:

Create a Sense of Urgency

Your headline should make the reader think that if they don’t read your article or post then they will be missing out on something important. Here’s an example of a headline that provides urgency: “10 Immediate Tips to Social Media Success That Every Marketer Must Know.”Words like “immediate” , “must”, “success”  make the reader think that if they don’t read further they are missing out on a chance to get better at their craft.

Trigger a Strong Emotion

I saw a great blog post headline today from Guy Kawasaki: “Unbelievable test pilot’s account of an SR-71 disintegrating at 78,000 feet.” I have no specific interest in aviation and have no idea what an SR-71 is, but I clicked on the headline because the emotion that was elicited – the fear of crashing in a plane – was so strong that I had no other choice. Appeal to the emotion of your readers and you’ll be on your way to success.

 Follow the 50/50 Rule

There is a rule in copy writing that you should spend half the time it takes to write your copy on the headline itself. Sounds crazy, but the more I write the more I see how important this is. We are bombarded by headlines 24/7, our job is to create ones that get our material read. If you don’t obsess over your headline you wont get read and might as well not waste your time penning that awesome blog post.

What are your tips for writing great headlines? What are some good one’s that you’ve seen recently?

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