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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Social Media, Strategy & Tactics, Tools

Content: The difference between success & failure

Being a startup isn’t easy. No %&$* Sherlock…

But really, taking an idea and shaping it over and over until it becomes something that vaguely resembles a business is an incredibly hard and maybe even masochistic thing to do. And to make things even more challenging, coming up with the service and identifying an audience to sell it to is only the first step on the long and windy road towards success. Once you’ve done all this, you must now distinguish yourself in the marketplace.

Unfortunately, the “If you build it they will come” philosophy couldn’t be further from the truth for the startup community. Unless you are one of the rare – once in a generation industry disruptors – chances are you will be engaged in a constant battle for customers with dozens of competitors who have similar business models to your own. If this sounds like you, fear not, there is a secret weapon that can immediately help you rise above the fray: Content.

content-is-king

It’s true, content is King. It gives your business a voice, perspective and a story. Each piece of content that you generate – from a blog post or a Tweet, to a byline article – tells your customers and prospects why they should be doing business with you. But like anything else, developing content needs to be done thoughtfully and strategically.

Here are three keys to remember when creating content:

Make it Shareable:

Normally this is where people talk about the importance of knowing what sort of content plays better on different channels, i.e. Facebook vs Pinterest. But this is not what I mean. By making it shareable I mean using what I like to call the “worth-a-damn radar”. Don’t spend 3 hours creating a piece of content that may have been topical three years ago but today has the sharability of a toothbrush. Being helpful is the number one way to get shares. Have a solution to a problem that many of your customers are facing? Maybe a unique perspective on a well-read topic? If so, you’ll probably hear the “worth-a-damn” meter start to buzz. But if you’re simply regurgitating old news or ideas, the only sound you’ll here is the tick of the clock as you continue to waste time – something no startup can afford.

Make it Arresting:

We are bombarded by an enormous amount of content and messages each and every day, but remember only a few. Those that do “break through” contain something arresting that allowed them to be deposited in our memory banks instead of sailing into oblivion hoping to latch onto another unsuspecting prospect. Using imagery, video, or any type of multimedia increases the chances that your content will actually be consumed by those you intended it for. Another way to make content arresting is by using catchy headlines (Five Tips to Writing Better Headlines).  This is not earth shattering, but too often I see good content that looks boring, and therefore doesn’t get consumed.

Make it Your Own:

We all have unique voices, and your company should have one too. These are brand basics. And if you don’t build a brand, you run the risk of becoming a commodity. Today’s customer wants to do business with a company that has a personality. It may take time to find your voice, but once you do, you will have a consistent way to tell your mission, values and philosophy. This is what separates you from the guy around the block who has a very similar offering, but no voice. Again, this takes time and practice, but is well worth the effort.

Use content to your advantage wherever you can. Start a blog, build a website, engage on social media. Today’s customer has the advantage of having a never-ending list of companies to do business with. Take back your advantage by using content to distinguish yourself.

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

Word Usage & What it Says About Reaching the Sexes

As communicators, we need to be flexible in the way we address our diverse sets of audiences. The range of folks we wish to reach is often times very wide and even the most subtle of differences can have a big affect on how we tailor our message. One not so subtle difference, but one that has continued to baffle the most expert of communicators for eons, is gender.

I’m reading a fascinating book by James W. Pennebaker called the “Secret Life of Pronouns” that analyzes the words we use and what they say about us, in astonishing detail. Man this book is thought provoking. A definite recommend for any communications pro or lover of words in general. For this post, I want to take a quick look at a chart from the book that lays out some of the differences between men and women and the words they use. In doing so, I hope to get the wheels turning for us to start thinking about more effective ways to reach these wildly different audiences by speaking a language that is most familiar to them.

Pennebaker and his students, through their language analysis programs, came up with this breakdown of the main differences in word pattern amongst the different sexes:

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On the surface, some of these may seem obvious. Men, for example, use more swear words – duh! And women, who tend to be more self-aware and conscientious of others, use more personal pronouns (I, we, me, us, etc.). But some of the less obvious differences strike me as keys to successfully targeting and reaching these two audiences. Bare in mind, these may be oversimplifications our purely supposition on my part, but I do think there is something here.

Ladies first, of course. I was raised by women, so I’m inclined to think that given my personal circumstances I am a better communicator with women then most men. It only makes sense. However, not being one myself, I’m sure there is still a lot I could learn.

The first area I found particularly interesting for women in the chart above was the fact that they tend to use more “Hedge Phrases”. They are more likely to use “I think” or “I believe”, as Pennebaker says, because they are more aware and considerate of different perspectives and opinions. This, to me, seemed like a very important difference between women and their male counterparts. Do women respond better to a less authoritarian or one sided way of communication? Should we be more considerate of different views and opinions when communicating with women? If so, how? I dare not make assertions or try to formulate answers to these questions. I will leave it up to you, the reader, to decide. 😉

The area that interested me the most for men was less of a revelation and more of a reminder of what men respond to when communicating with them. Numbers. With experience working for major financial companies, where news and messaging is often related to quantities and figures, this was glaring to me. My takeaway: Use numbers instead of  pronouns like “a lot” when communicating with your male audience. This is even more important to keep in mind in the the condensed world of social media. Numbers are way more effective and arresting in social media then pronouns. I’d even take it a step further and say that, wherever possible, use digits in place of words.

Analyze the above chart and think about what it says about the tailoring you need to do when communicating your message, whatever it may be, to these very different audiences. What else do you think this chart says about the differences in communicating to men and women? Do you think it holds weight?

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

The Basic Human Need That Brands Need to Respect

Your brand needs to be human. We see that everywhere these days. We are told that we need to put a human face on our brand and speak to our customers in a human way. I agree with this. I’d be foolish not to. A long time ago the business had the upper hand; there were less of them and they were in higher demand. Today it seems like there are as many “businesses” as people. Because of this we can be more selective. We, the customer have the upper hand. Couple that with our evolution as a society and it’s now acceptable and possible to choose to do business with companies that embody some of our most cherished, detailed beliefs and attributes that makes us who we are as individuals. Looking to buy clothes made out of hemp, from a company that gives a percentage of their proceeds to homeless children and is also an advocate for LGTB rights? I’m sure you can find them.  The fact is that we have the luxury of being able to be ultra choosy today so we do business with those whose human persona most closely reflects ours. But why do we want our businesses to be human? What is the reason, at it’s most basic level? I think the answer lies within here:

450px-Maslow's_Hierarchy_of_Needs.svg

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is the theory of human motivation. What drives us and makes us who we are. In someway or another all of the main sections in the pyramid account for why we want our brands to be human.  But there’s one that I think trumps them all. One, that if we focus on and understand, can make us more effective when communicating with our customers. ESTEEM: The need to feel respected. The typical human desire to be accepted and valued by others. As a species we crave respect. We are motivated and driven by the respect of others which in turn affects our self-esteem or self-respect.

Too often I see brands equating the need to be human to being “social” or trying to hard to reach millennials. As a millennial myself, this comes off as forced and cheesy. Viral videos with weird premises and played-out humor may work for some, but I think this is just a blip on the radar. There will be a time when social media and the viral phenomenon become so mainstream that another shift will be needed to reach the customer. This means that we need to latch on to the basics. What is more basic then a primal human need? Something that will always be there, no matter what the new hot social platform or advertising style is. ESTEEM. The need for a customer, rather, the individual, to feel respected. A muscly man with an erudite way of speaking in the most off the wall situations may sell deodorant to some.  I switched from a brand that uses these over the top tactics after seeing ads for another that does not use aluminum in their products. The ad was simple but the communication was impactful. What it said told me that they value me and my health. That shows respect. That creates a loyal customer.

So how do we cater to this most basic and powerful need to be respected. That my friends, is another post for another day!

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