Tuesday, April 15, 2014

52 Tips for Strong PR – A 2014 Users Guide Tip 13: Be Active and Engaged

With all the new technologies and information available, from e-mail to IM to databases to online contact forms, it’s easy to take a passive approach to connecting with people. Send something out into the ether and wait for a response. I understand why people do it, it’s safe, low risk and you don’t run the risk of having “no” said directly to you. It’s also the completely wrong approach if you want to have a long-term, successful career in PR. If you were a doctor, could you be effective if you only diagnosed patients over e-mail? Not any doctor that I’d want to see.

Some comments posted on an earlier blog post about relationships made the point that with a good database, relationships don’t matter anymore. I find the opposite to be true. First, most databases struggle to stay current with shifting beats, and certainly do nothing to capture reporter interests, preferences or interview styles. Secondly, if more people have access to any given reporters information, the amount of contact received each day goes up dramatically. If the reporter is now getting 100 pitches that are all part of his or her beat coverage, having a relationship with that reporter becomes even more important. While I understand and agree that the quality of the pitch, and how well you’re telling a story is critical, lots of strong PR people are good at writing pitches. If a reporter knows you as a person, and you’ve shared kid photos, had coffee or helped him find a source for a story, the likelihood that he responds to your pitch first goes up.
You also need to make sure that you are getting or staying engaged. There are lots of ways to accomplish this. A simple place to start is following and interacting with influencers on Twitter. You should also take the time to compliment reporters, bloggers, analysts, etc. on articles, posts or reports you read and enjoyed. Even better is when you post their content on social media sites to help expand the influencer’s reach. Remember, none of these people you’re trying to reach are creating their content in a vacuum, they are creating it so others can read it, process it and form an opinion.

Where this passivity or lack of engagement can get you in trouble is when you rely on only one way to reach someone important to your company or client. This can be a reporter, blogger, analyst, conference organizer, or any number of others that can have an influence on your company or clients success. You send an e-mail and wait. You have no idea what else they have on their plate and they are busy so your e-mail is easy to ignore. You send a follow up with no new information and again are ignored. You can then pretend they weren’t interested, and maybe they weren’t, but could be they just didn’t see it or that the pitch didn’t register as something they’d be interested in. 

I’m not suggesting that you become a stalker, or continue to bombard someone that has said “no.” But your job requires you to get your company or client in front of people and to do that, you have to take an active, engaged approach.

Friday, April 4, 2014

52 Tips for Strong PR – A 2014 Users Guide Tip 12: Find the Current

One of the most interesting aspects of public relations is how it, if executed well, can enable a company to leverage current trends and market developments to its advantage. PR can help companies latch onto emerging market drivers to help boost awareness, demonstrate thought leadership and drive interest. It can preset expectations ahead of big product launches and defuse the actions of close competitors.  

This current can also be very effective in helping shape a market by your company’s strengths and the competitors’ weaknesses, by articulating how your features and functionality better match where the market is going and how it is better suited to help customers get there. To be most effective with this, you should leverage a broad range of communication channels from media interviews, analyst discussions, speaking opportunities, customer events, blogs, social media and probably several others I’m neglecting to mention.

Finding the current can also help elevate a company that seems to get stuck talking about what it makes and not what is driving the need for its products to market. With this granular level of focus with its media relations, a company can miss out on opportunities to demonstrate thought leadership. Given how many stories are written each day about trends shaping the market, the pending impact of regulation or even what the next season’s trends will be, these are great opportunities. These forward looking opportunities don’t focus on what a company makes, but demonstrates that your company is thinking about how the market is changing as it designs, develops and brings new products and services to market.

Companies can also link to current market trends to explain how a business was negatively impacted by events outside its control. This is not to suggest that outside market forces can become the complete scapegoat, but they can help shade when something didn’t go as planned.

Regardless of how you want to leverage market trends and shifts, it’s important to know what they are so you can position your company effectively. Social media, conversations with key industry influencers, reading analyst reports and blogs, are all good ways to keep your toe in the water to feel which way the current is flowing.

Friday, March 21, 2014

52 Tips for Strong PR – A 2014 Users Guide Tip 11: Develop an Authentic Voice(s)

Anyone that works in PR can tell you, there is a lot of writing. We write case studies, press releases, contributed articles, pitches, FAQs, media alerts, award submissions, speaking abstracts, event materials, website copy, bios and probably a hundred other things during the course of an average month. While some of these types of writing overlap in terms of style, most require a unique style of writing to be effective. With each, you’re telling a story, but how quickly you tell it, and how you structure the writing will be different.

Add to this, is the need to hone your voice as a PR person so that when you reach out to media, write a blog, correspond with clients or present at conferences, it is authentic so people understand who you are. Developing an authentic voice is hard because the strictures that govern so much of our writing don’t support creativity or originality. When I work with people on our team, editing things they’ve written, I rarely rewrite it for them; instead I prefer to provide guidance as to what the piece needs to cover. It’s up to them to put the language in their own voice.

When I write, I know which message I think should be given the most weight, where to use humor or make a particular point with the voice I want heard, but I don’t often find it in the first draft. Like any writer, I can get caught up in my own head as I write, running an idea down until there is nothing left to say in the first draft. It’s usually on the second or third pass that I layer in the right tone, craft the right symbolism and make the piece my own. 

Going beyond the voice we need to develop as a PR person, is ensuring that our voice doesn’t obscure the voice of the client or company for which we write. We have clients that like their writing loose and edgy and others that are as conservative as they come, focusing on the bits and pieces of what they do by habit.

Additionally, as a PR practitioner, you will regularly be asked to ghostwrite for an executive. This can be a speech, blog, press release quote, etc. The challenge will be to step out of your own “voice” and into the voice of the person you’re writing for. To do this, you have to know them, which can sometimes be a challenge if you’re just starting out and get limited face time with an executive. If this is the case, try and find videos of the person speaking at a conference or listen to interviews that have been recorded. It’s easy to fall back into writing in your voice when you don’t have access to the person or any samples to review, but you have to remember that the person is not you, does not have your experiences and doesn’t necessarily want to project the image that you might want them to.

Having the ability and talent to be authentic and help others sound authentic is a skill to be nurtured and will be highly valuable in today’s competitive marketplace.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

52 Tips for Strong PR – A 2014 Users Guide Tip 10: Forget the Formula

One of the worst traps a PR person can fall into is getting stuck using the same formula for PR campaigns. This is true for people just entering the field and for folks like me that have been at it for 20+ years. We develop habits, make assumptions based on past campaigns, get comfortable with a certain set of tactics, and believe that because something worked once (or a hundred times), it will work again. Sometimes it does, so the habit continues to become engrained.

The danger is that you become stale as a PR practitioner and fail to leverage new techniques, opportunities or tactics that can help you achieve more than you were able to before. A primary example is how press releases are written. Many press releases are still written in the inverted pyramid style, even when the news is too minor to be of interest to the media. The rise in social media and news aggregation sites makes this type of announcement more important though, and enhances your ability to talk directly to the end customer, partner, investor or anyone else that you are trying to influence. Because you know the media won’t care, you can free up the way the release is written, providing a more feature-like reading experience for anyone that reads it on Yahoo!, WSJ.com, LightReading.com, etc. Because you’re not relying on telling the story through the journalist, you can talk directly to the audience, tell a deeper story and put the news into the right context. It also allows you to tell more stories about a company’s development as it evolves, showcasing how each move or change fits into a master plan.
Events are another staple in the PR world and helping the sales team plan another customer event or plan a product launch party can be tedious when everyone else involved would rather be doing something else. It’s easy to do what has been done before, mostly because you know the potential roadblocks that might exist and can navigate them through to a successful completion. But this is an opportunity to bring a fresh perspective to an event that has become tired. Think about ways for the customers to interact with each other and your team in a new and exciting way, make customer gifts original and thought provoking, find a speaker that doesn’t fit the normal profile or host a dinner somewhere unexpected. The value with this approach is if you do it right, you create a special memory for the customer that is tied specifically to your company’s brand so that every time they remember it, they think fondly of your company.

The final area to cover, and I know there are hundreds more that could be explored, is pitching. The standard pitch process has become so mundane that many press don’t even read 1/3 of what comes into their e-mail inbox. That’s because the formula most often used is something like this:

Dear Reporter:

I hope this e-mail finds you well. I wanted to see if I could get time on your calendar for a conversation with XXX Company to talk about their new XXXX product. The product is designed to help customers achieve outstanding results with their internal management operations, saving them from now unneeded capital costs and reducing operational burn…

If you’d like to schedule a call, please let me know if Tuesday or Wednesday of next week work.

Best,
            PR Person

There is nothing inherently wrong with the pitch above, but I’m willing to bet that it looks a lot like hundreds of other pitches a reporter sees every day. So how can you break the formula? It can be as simple as a start that mentions a recent story the reporter wrote and why it made you think that the reporter would be interested in what your company or client wants to talk about. The pitch above is also positioned as a one-way conversation with the reporter in a passive listening voice, instead of inviting the journalists to a conversation about a topic that is driving  the market, a topic that they are clearly interested in based on the stories they’ve been writing.
I once pitched Doug Gross at CNN with a subject that read “So I see you’re writing about porn…” because I read on twitter that he was writing about how Twitter was looking to hide 6-second Vine sex tapes from unsuspecting users. The pitch got an almost immediate response from Doug, who called it the best pitch he’d gotten all year, and started a dialog about a client that most likely wouldn’t have happened if I’d used a formulaic pitch.

If you have ideas of other ways, or other areas, where PR folks could forget the formula and try something new and fresh, please post them in the comments section. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

52 Tips for Strong PR – A 2014 Users Guide Tip 9: It’s All About the Relationship

Over the past 20 years, I’ve developed a thick skin. The extra layers of epidermis include scar tissue from internal battles of messaging, PR campaigns that went really well and off the rails, executive scandals, volcano eruptions and a host of other programs that--because of luck and hard work--caused little or no damage to my clients’ brands. With the emergence of social media platforms like Twitter, a thick skin can be helpful when snarky journalists work out their frustrations by whipping PR folks publically.

The truth is, over the course of your career, you’re going to get on the bad side of reporters. Sometimes because of mistakes you make, and sometimes because you’re following the directive of your company or client. When things go south, companies often put the PR person in front of the media to help give distance for executives, but also because they can make an easy scapegoat if the message falls flat. I remember a time, over a decade ago, that a company I was working for was announcing an acquisition. The chief financial officer wanted the news to be above the fold in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and to do that, we had to offer them an exclusive. I argued against the exclusive because I didn’t think we needed it. We had great traction with the WSJ, New York Times, Financial Times and all the wires. Given the attention the company was getting, and the size of the acquisition, everyone was going to cover it. If we gave an exclusive to the WSJ, we would alienate other reporters following the company and that would hurt us in the short run and over time, if the company hit a rough patch. I lost the argument and as soon as the news hit the wire at midnight my phone was ringing. Words like trust, relationship, betrayal, etc., were spit at me by top reporters from the rest of the major outlets and none of them covered the news. Some of those relationships I was able to repair over time but some of them still won’t talk to me today, over thirteen years later.
The good news is you move on, and so do reporters. Their beats change, the publications they write for shift and time eventually heals all wounds…hopefully. And what we do as PR people change.

On the flip side, I have relationships with key media like Om Malik that date back to my time at InFocus and his time at Forbes. We’ve maintained our friendship and good working relationship through three companies, the start of my firm and his moves leading up to founding GigaOm. The same holds true for Scott Raynovich, who I met when he was at Red Herring, then moved to Light Reading and eventually to his own site, The Rayno Report. And the person that I probably consider one of my closest friends in the media world, Carol Wilson, whom I’ve known since her days at Interactive Week, then NetEconomy, Telephony and now Light Reading.
These relationships exist because we’ve connected outside of the pitch process. We’ve shared meals outside of a briefing, watched ball games, shared stories about family and even, at one event, got to meet Tommy Lasorda. These folks, and many more, take briefings because they know when I approach them it’s relevant to their coverage area or because it’s something I know they’ll find interesting, even if it’s not a perfect fit.

This level of trust and mutual respect takes time to build. There are other reporters I’ve known the same amount of time but don’t have this type of relationship with because I don’t like them and they don’t like me. But that happens and you can’t sweat it as a PR professional and still survive and thrive. The key is to find the people you like and respect, and work to develop relationships that can last your entire career.

Friday, February 28, 2014

52 Tips for Strong PR – A 2014 Users Guide Tip 8: Go Deep and Wide

One of things I encourage any PR person to do is dig deep and go wide. Let’s cover deep first. Deep in your understanding of what your company or client does, including the products and technology, partners and customers, markets served and competitive threats. This knowledge will enable you to be an effective first contact for reporters that are interested in what your company does or wants to learn more about what makes its market tick. This knowledge not only makes you credible to reporters and analysts, but also to the executives, product teams, sales people and anyone else that lives and breathes what your company does every day.

It’s also important that you understand your or your client’s business so you can help shape the company’s story as it evolves. This will help put context around the moves the company makes as it progresses through its various stages, and help you explain these moves or changes to press and analysts so they are viewed as part of a larger plan. It also makes a difference as you pitch reporters and analysts and walk them through the value prop, market relevance and how whatever announcement you’re making fits within the overall corporate strategy. During interviews, you can help keep the story on track and make suggestions to your spokesperson about how to frame certain aspects of the conversation.
When I tell PR people they need to be wide, I mean they need to be able to carry a conversation. We’ve all been there, at a dinner with the CTO of a client and a reporter that have nothing in common other than the topic of discussion. It’s part of the ritual. Not so much about delivering the news, but about the relationship so that mutual respect and a connection can be created that can provide value over time.  The problem is, everyone at the table comes from different backgrounds, with different interests and influences. Part of your job as a PR person is to keep the conversation flow going so that there aren’t the awkward silences that leave both the executive and reporter leaving the meal unsatisfied. By wide, I mean you need to stay current on a wide range of topics from the environment and science to music and current events, so that you can help start or foster conversations as everyone gets to know each other. The point isn’t to dominate the conversation, but bring up topics that the other two might have some knowledge of or an interest in discussing as the ice is broken.
To help develop a wide data set, I often suggest reading Time, USA Today and a publication specific to your industry. You don’t need to be the expert, but you do need to be able to start a conversation, or several conversations, during a meal or over drinks and this base of information can be helpful.

Not every interaction will require you to be deep or wide, but it’s always good to have the ability to do either when needed.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

52 Tips for Strong PR – A 2014 Users Guide Tip 7: Don’t be a flak

If there was ever a four letter word in PR, it’s flak. It’s used by media and execs, in the movies and on TV as a joke and as a slur -- and is 100 percent the wrong image for our industry and for any PR professional. The idea that PR is run by brainless individuals that just do the bidding of some executive is a stereotype we can’t afford.

So let’s put that aside for a minute and talk about what a PR person should be and what our industry should represent. PR is the steward of the company message and the chief protector of the company’s brand and image. PR helps the company appreciate how it is understood, the difference between its brand identity and brand knowledge, and how everything from trends to competitive threats to company evolution will impact the market. We are the calm in the storm when a crisis hits, and the first line of defense when things go wrong. We help the CEO articulate his message, the CFO provide context to the street and the CTO turn technology jargon into comprehendible English.
We are planners. We help a company understand how to shape its message through media engagement, speaking opportunities, contributed articles, awards and social media. We focus on the bigger messaging framework to ensure the company talks about itself as a whole, instead of focusing on the individual pieces. We make sure analysts understand where the company is going, why it has picked this direction and how this journey will benefit customers, investors, partners and employees. We ensure that our company spokespeople are prepped before an interview so that they know what the reporter is writing about, details about their interview style and insight into their knowledge of the market, company and technology. We also make sure that the reporter has what they need to be successful – providing access to customers, partners, experts, information and ideas that help tell a bigger story than any one press release might indicate.

We do all of this before we ever pick up the phone and call a reporter. In truth, for a good PR person, 90% of our job is done before the media are approached. So why do reporters love to feed the stereotype that PR people are flaks? There are probably dozens of reasons that would require a couch and a degree different than mine, but I think the main reason is some PR people often set themselves up as simply the messenger.   
A key value a good PR person brings to their clients or company is to serve both the internal needs as well as the needs of the reporter. To do that effectively, you have to earn the trust of both groups and then work to build upon that trust and maintain it. You have to really understand what your company or client is trying to do and why their approach has merit in the marketplace. You have to understand how a product will impact a customer or market and how it differs from a competitor.

When we decide to work with new clients, I always tell them that they are not going to like everything I say to them. They might fire us for that, but one of the things they are paying our firm for is our opinion. If they decide to do something we think will have negative repercussions, we provide alternative options and tell them what we think might happen if they continue down that path. We’ll do everything we can to keep what we might think will happen from happening, but we don’t back down if our experience, insight and expertise are telling us something different. 
I’m not worried about ruffling feathers, soothing egos or simply cashing a check. I’m concerned with how the company presents itself and how it is perceived. My focus from a program development and strategy perspective is on the long game: how little pieces here and bigger pieces there will help form a complete picture of the company, its prospects and relative market value. Reporters come and go, beats change, executives move on, but your reputation follows you wherever you go. So…don’t be a flak.