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, 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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Why Startups Should Reconsider Before Cutting PR from the Budget

As a start-up, maximizing time, value and resources is the only way to ensure proper growth and success. You’ve got to be lean – pun intended. Eric Ries’ Lean Startup philosophy “seeks to eliminate wasteful practices and increase value producing practices during the product development phase so that startups can have a better chance of success without requiring large amounts of outside funding, elaborate business plans, or the perfect product.“ So if it is not a catalyst for growth, then there’s no time to waste on it. Makes perfect sense.

What doesn’t make sense to me is that when looking at areas in the budget to cut back on or completely forgo, PR is often the leading contender for many startups. My perplexity isn’t coming from the fact that my mortgage, bills and frivolous motorcycle expenditures depend on my income from practicing PR, rather, the undeniable truth that PR is the cheapest, most effective way to raise visibility, establish credibility and attract customers.

Robert Wynne, head of Wynne communications, wrote a great article for Forbes recently that took a look at the differences between PR and Advertising. To illustrate the stark differences he used this chart:

su chart

The point of this blog isn’t to compare PR to Advertising, as it is safe to assume that those who shy away from PR due to budget concerns have no plans on footing what is generally a much higher bill for advertising. The first three rows under “Public Relations” are what I want to focus on:

Earned:

You don’t wave a magic PR wand and all of a sudden the editor of Wired Magazine writes a piece on your early stage startup. You don’t spam the web with press releases posted to every wire service available hoping that a reporter will pick it up and write said article. Or expect your customers to be scouring wired services and stumble upon your release. NO! Anyone who offers this sort of service to you is not a PR PRO. Real PR professionals EARN coverage by convincing a reporter, blogger or influencer that their audience should know about your company.

Builds Trust:

According to Michael Levine, author of Guerilla P.R., “Depending on how you measure and monitor, an article it is between 10 times and 100 times more valuable than an advertisement.” This is very logical – people, your customers included, are much more likely to be convinced by a credible reporter/influencer who they respect rather than an advertisement – with nothing more than dollar amount it took to fill the space in which it appears – backing it. An effective PR professional has, or can establish, relationships with the folks who will be the most influential to your prospective customers. They know enough about your company to impart their knowledge onto the reporter, who if convinced, will spread that knowledge to the people who will ultimately buy your product or service and determine the success of your business.

Third Party Validation:

This is everything. Advertisements come directly from the company. Same as marketing. Yes, there may by a conduit, perhaps an agency or consultant helping you craft these communications, but at the end of the day, this is nothing more than you telling someone “I’m awesome, by my product.” You may be awesome, but today’s savvy consumer needs a bit more conniving before shelling out some cash. The media, an industry that society holds to the highest of standards, and one who holds themselves to even higher standards, is the best way to convince someone they should do business with you. Unlike advertisers or other communications businesses, the media is not incentivized to tout your product or service. So when they say you are awesome, chances are you really are.

So now you agree that PR may be worth considering after all. Maybe you should give it a try yourself, right? Wrong! A hastily thought out and executed PR push can have the opposite result of an effective one. Remember, you don’t only appear in a newspaper or on a blog when it is a favorable story… and once it’s up there, it’s there forever. Leave it to the pros.

Interested in the above? Many PR shops have free trial campaigns for startups to get you started on the path to success.

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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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One of the Most Important Lessons They Forgot to Teach You in PR 101

As a PR pro, we are often tasked with the impossible. We’ll come across clients who have little understanding of how PR and media relations actually works, and their first request of us will be an above the fold piece in the NYT. Anything less and we are not valuable in their eyes. After all, we are paid to deliver. The moment we stop delivering, our pockets will become empty and our bellies will start to growl; our livelihood is directly tied to our client’s expectations.

Most professions have the luxury of being grounded in pretty well defined and shared expectations. You expect an airplane pilot to do nothing more than deliver you to your destination. Even if the flight is delayed, and you arrive hours after you were supposed to, the pilot collects the same check. A trauma surgeon has the daunting task of saving lives, but if their patient dies on the operating table, they still get paid. Even the emotionally destroyed family of the deceased understands that the surgeon did all they could and should not bare the weight of the loss, personally or professionally. I understand that these comparisons are a bit silly, but there is some truth here. You see, unlike these fields, PR is all about perception, and our fate is determined by that perception. There has to be some of level of irony there.

A recent piece in Forbes listed the PR Executive as the 6th most stressful jobs, and it’s no surprise. No matter how hard we work, or how talented we are, we are only as good as our clients perceive us. So what can we do to combat this? The answer is simple, and something that should be taught in every PR class around the world – SET EXPECTATIONS.

Setting expectations gives you the edge by aligning your client’s expectations with reality. It can also be a great hedge mechanism that will end up magnifying positive results and minimizing less than favorable or lackluster results. So here’s how you do it:

Set Them Early – Let’s say a client brings you in to work on an announcement regarding a new product. From the get-go, explain the challenges of getting press and what you think the best approach is. Don’t be afraid to bring them down to reality. They may think they are the best thing since sliced bread, but that doesn’t make them newsworthy.

Don’t Overshoot – If you aren’t sure what kind of results you can get your client, don’t tell them what you are going to get them, tell them how you are going to go about it. Your strategy and tactics. If those are impressive and show your expertise and the lengths you are willing to go for them, then you are positioning yourself well, no matter the outcome.

Over Deliver – By not promising specifics, any positive result (article, interview, new relationship) will be icing on the cake. You’ve already told your client just how challenging it will be to get any coverage, yet you got some, and on the way you’ve built relationships with key reporters! That’s what a PR pro does. That’s what you get paid for.

PR is hard enough. We don’t deliver tangible goods, we don’t make anyone money (directly) – we work in the abstract, communicating and storytelling. The impact that a good PR pro can have is immense but often times hard to quantify. In today’s world of ROIs and KPIs, this only makes our jobs more challenging. By learning how to set expectations and doing so often, you will do wonders for how your clients perceive and value you.

What other things should be taught in PR our Comms classes that aren’t?

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The News Release Gets an “Extreme Makeover”!

In a release from the Government of Canada, their press office announces that they are retiring the traditional news release format in favour of a more digital-friendly product that makes the key messages of announcements clearer, quick facts more accessible and integrates more effectively with social media channels.” The Canadian flacks promise that the new format will provide Two or three paragraphs of short, crisp text will allow [media & stakeholders] to scan quickly for the key messages of the announcement.”

An example of this new format can be seen here.

First off, I don’t think that this is earth-shattering by any means. Communicators should have learned to craft easily digestible, digitally optimized and shareable NRs long ago. I do think, however, that this is a particularly good example to follow for those who haven’t. Maybe even a benchmark.

I really like what the Canadian Gov.’s press office has done here. They’ve made the news release more reader friendly and maybe more importantly, they’ve made it easier for members of the media to do their jobs. By boiling down the release and eliminating all the unnecessary language and superfluous inserts, they’ve created something that the reader can digest in a under a couple of minutes. The headline, news, key facts, quotes and related links are called out separately and bulleted, giving us everything we need in as clear and concise a way as possible.

This format is also more effective for internal use. As noted in the article, the way it’s drafted makes it easier for those manning the social profiles to create Tweets and posts from the NR. No longer do your comms. folks need to comb through a dense few pages of prose to determine what should end up going out on your social channels. Half of the work has already been done!

I get annoyed, selfishly maybe, when folks argue that the written word is dying, citing things like trends in visualization and character constraints on social profiles. Seeing something like what the Canadian Government’s office has done gives me hope. The written word is far from dead – it simply needs to be adapted to a more concise, direct format. To the ignorant, this may seem as a sign that the wordsmith will go the way of the Dodo. I say that’s far from the truth! It’s easy to string a bunch of long-winded words together and trick the reader into believing you are an authority on something. The challenge, and where the skill really lies, is writing effectively in a condensed format.

What do you think? How does this change the PR game?

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PR is NOT about Maintaining Public Image…

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… Exclusively.

I recently came across this article in the Globe where a recent graduate working in a marketing agency reveals a special interest in public relations and asks the writer to  “tell [her] more about that field?” First off, I couldn’t believe that the promising youth of tomorrow would still want to subject themselves to such an oppressive, thankless and ever so stressful job. Just kidding… kind of.

When I was in college, PR & Communications was one of the most popular majors. I think there were two reasons for that. One, was the group of students who had yet to unearth the true calling that would determine their path and dictate their life’s work. For them, communications was more of a catchall, a way to ensure that they’d graduate with tangible and easily translatable skills that they could apply to a myriad of positions and industries. These potheads… ahem…  kids seemed to have the shared foresight that communications was the basis of success for any profession.

The other group of kids, mostly females, had the very misguided dream of becoming the next Lizzy Gruman. PR was a one way ticket to socializing with Hollywoods A listers and guiding these already awesome people on how to be even more awesome. Maybe the occasional DUI crisis PR as well. Yes, these girls took up quite a few seats in my comms. classes, but looking back, I can’t think of any who are actually in PR today. Probably safe to credit that with the harsh realization that smacked them in the head on their first day in the agency that PR is NOT glamorous.  It’s a hard knock life.

But the real reason I decided to post about this article was not because it conjured up memories of days where responsibility was optional and 9am seemed an obscene time to rise. Or because I can say I’m one of the few who stuck to the plan. No, the reason this article caught my attention was because I found it incredibly misleading.

The first part of the articles response is dead on:

“In the world of marketing, public relations professionals have one of the greatest challenges of all. In short, PR professionals try to create and maintain a favorable image for their employers (or client, employed by an agency). These professionals might write media releases, act as spokesmen for companies, or both.”

A PR consultant then adds the following insight:

“The PR practice is all about creating public perception… The virtual Rolodex is key — as it’s all about the media you know. The goal is to develop relationships and guide the press into writing”.

And that’s where I stopped – held a pillow to my face – and let out a furious ROAR. This young person is interested in getting into one of the most complex fields there is (OK, maybe not as complex as Neuroscience, or Quantum Mechanics) and all they get is it’s about creating public perception and working with reporters?? What about everything else? What about identifying the real influencers who will have as much or more effect on your client’s public perception? The bloggers, social influencers and advocates. What about being a content creator who can harness their command of the written word, paired with compassion and empathy, to craft messages that are impactful and meaningful?  And then, what about the need to be versed enough to know how to manage that message on an ever-expanding variety of mediums and platforms. And where was the mention of what happens on the inside that dictates public perception on the outside? Guiding and counseling executives to create a culture that will be publicly favorable. Strategy? Research?  Shouldn’t this person have been told about those things?!

Stepping back from this diatribe, I know that this response  was meant to be higher level overview, and again, there was some accurate feedback within. But my first reaction, being someone whose been immersed in the field for some time now, was that it seemed akin to telling a med student interested in being a surgeon that “it’s all about cutting the patient open and patching things up.”

What advice/insight would you impart on a recent grad or college student curious about the world of PR?

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