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.

            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.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

52 Tips for Strong PR – A 2014 Users Guide Tip 6: Be Social Online and Off

Social networking is everywhere. You can use it to book a reservation, review a restaurant, ogle at a friend’s vacation photos, find out who’s writing about what, interact with an old friend and make new ones. There are”Follow Fridays”, “must reads”, “likes”, “check-ins” and dozens of other ways to interact on today’s social networks. Online social networks have become so pervasive that social networking has overtaken porn as the No. 1 activity on the web, according to a recent story in Fast Company.

But do social networks really enable you to form real connections? There was a great story last week by Casey Johnston of ArsTechnica titled “How we ruin social networks, Facebook specifically.” In the story, Casey writes, “But the ability to keep tabs on someone without having to be proactive about it—no writing an e-mail, making a phone call, etc.—became the unique selling factor of Facebook….Facebook became a rich opportunity for ‘convert[ing] latent ties into weak ties,’ connections that are valuable because they are with people who are sufficiently distant socially to bring in new information and opportunities.”
“Weak ties” is the key phrase here. Can you really create a connection with someone when the only contact is online? I’ve “favorited” and “retweeted” hundreds of stories by editors on Twitter but that doesn’t mean I’ve engaged with anyone. I’ve “liked” posts on Facebook and have accumulated over 750 connections on LinkedIn, but does that mean anything? Maybe.

I think one of the traps PR people can fall into today is relying too heavily on online social media and ignore the social networks they can create offline. This can be as simple as jumping on a call a few minutes early to chat with a reporter or calling them for no other reason but to check in. It can be coffee or cocktails at a conference or breakfast at a trade show. It could be simply helping connect them with someone for a story they have to write to meet a deadline. And I mean a story that doesn’t include your company or client.
Trade shows and conferences are great ways to extend your social network in real life. We manage the press room at ITEXPO, one of the business technology industry’s top conferences on IP communications. Our job there is to make sure the media attending gets the most they can out of the show. During the few days the reporters are with us, they are slammed with sessions, briefings, keynotes and conversations. To give them some respite, we take them out one night for drinks and dinner, with no agenda but to give them a break from the craziness. When the telecom show SUPERCOMM still existed, we partnered with the great folks at Engage PR to host “No Pitch Nights” at Chicago White Sox and Cubs games. At these events, the only pitch was on the field. The connections we make during these events are anything but weak because they were built on real conversations and understandings, of mutual respect and discovering the things we had in common.

The tip here is to make sure you’re forming connections online and off so that your relationships are multi-dimensional and meaningful.  Whether you’re comparing trade rumors for a favorite sports team, swapping stories on business travel nightmares or sharing what your kids are up to these days, it’s all about creating real connections. When you are able to cultivate these types of relationships, it will help you cut through the inbox clutter and secure a conversation for your company or client. When the story runs, then you can share it on social media and see how many “likes” you get from all the people you really don’t know.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

52 Tips for Strong PR – A 2014 Users Guide Tip 5: Think Laterally

Humans are creatures of habit. We like to do the same things, see the same types of movies, eat the same types of food, and tend to date the same type of person. We see the world in a linear way, with cause and effect, and where an action has a predictable reaction. While that’s an acceptable approach for most of your life, it’s not okay for PR professionals that want to cut through the clutter that bombards most journalists.

Here’s where linear thinking comes into play within PR. A client or company wants to make an announcement; a PR person writes a pitch and e-mails it to an editor, reporter, analyst or blogger. There is no response so the PR person sends another e-mail, then another, then follows up with a phone call.  If this doesn’t work, they might try to ping someone on Twitter or will more likely move on to someone else on the list at the publication, or another publication that covers the topic. While sometimes a non-answer can be a simple timing issue, it’s usually a sign that the journalist isn’t interested. This, however, is where the process breaks down because the PR person will just move on to other journalists, or another pitch, and never consider the fact that their methods might be the problem.
There is the old adage about the definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The linear thinking for many in our profession is that the PR person doesn’t change the approach, value proposition or idea as they try to connect and generate interest from the editor; they just bang away because it is what they learned to do. The linear approach can work, especially when a reporter knows the company or PR person, but more often than not, the PR person ends up getting called out on Twitter by an annoyed reporter (fairly or unfairly).

There are ways other than a standard pitch to create attention for and interest in your company or client. First, you can try to tap into a broader trend that is shaping the industry and use that as a means to introduce your idea to a journalist. Second, you can share an idea that includes several clients or companies that are all able to talk about a different aspect of an issue or market trend. Third, you can include customers, partners and respected analysts in the mix to demonstrate that the idea is bigger than your company alone.

You can also leave the pitch in your draft folder unsent and look to engage with media in a non-traditional way. Over the past decade, we’ve created a variety of events and programs that showcase our clients without a standard pitch. The first was an event we called “CXO Dinner,” where C-level execs from our clients’ companies got together for an open Q&A with the media on an industry topic. They weren’t allowed to talk about their company or solutions; just the market need and what should or could happen. The idea here was to show that the men and women running these companies were smart and understood how the market around them was developing. The intent wasn’t coverage of the event, although that did happen. Our goal was to get reporters thinking about our executives as thought leaders, on topics bigger than their individual companies.
We also do something each week called “call downs.” This is when one of our team members touches base with a reporter or analyst to check-in, see what they are working on or even to simply catch up on a common interest outside of work. It’s not a pitch per se, but more about building relationships, understanding what the reporter is interested in at the moment and what stories they are planning in the near future. During these calls, we might offer some insight, or suggest and analyst or executive they can talk with, but it’s always part of the organic conversation. Most PR people only reach out to reporters when they want or need something and that kind of linear thinking doesn’t help you, your client or the relationship with the reporter.

The beauty of lateral thinking is that it can be specific to a reporter, an industry trend, a pitch or a company. The goal is to be unique and creative and present your idea in a way that is surprising, intriguing and engaging.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

52 Tips for Strong PR – A 2014 Users Guide: Tip 4: Stay in Tune with Your Clients/Company's Evolution

Nothing stays the same, and truth be told, it shouldn’t. For one thing, that would be an immensely boring song, but more importantly, things that stay the same grow stagnant and often wither and die. This holds true for companies as well. Companies need to evolve based on market changes, shifting  priorities, technology advances, customer and partner engagement and hundreds of other possible factors that create both opportunities and challenges that crop up as it works through its market.

Some of these changes are organic as a company moves from product concept to delivery, from thought leadership to market leadership, from private to public. Some are forced by changes in marketing conditions or customer demands. It’s critical for PR to understand how these changes fit within the company’s long-term messaging and positioning and how they relate to the market as a whole.  
Part of our job as PR professionals is to help our company and clients understand how to evolve messaging to support changes that a company might be undergoing. Our agency likes to work with our clients on strategies and programs that are based on where they want to be in 12 – 18 months, and then re-evaluate every quarter to ensure we accommodate any new changes. And something always changes.

Not all the changes will be huge or particularly important in isolation, but can possibly be used to articulate a broader story about your company, its milestones and ability to adapt to changing market environments. You will need to stay on top of what internal changes might be happening that can positively or negatively impact the PR program. This can be as simple as a new executive that can be established as an expert resource to the media, or the addition of a new vertical market that you need to help tap into.
This can be particularly challenging when the industry moves and your company takes a step in a direction that might be controversial in the short term, but is ultimately a critical part of its longer-term plan. Our job it to make sure we explain how it fits in the company’s strategy over time. The truth is, not everyone will understand or appreciate every move your company makes, even with the best of explanations. But it’s important to articulate how everything fits into the company’s overall vision so that whatever change takes place isn’t seen as an unconnected, isolated event or change.

My final point is what to do when a change is based on a negative event or situation. A CEO leaving, a product failure, a customer loss, etc., are all bad things that happen sometimes to really good companies. A lot of people will want to gloss over these events, and while you can certainly spin some aspects into a neutral, you shouldn’t try to convince anyone that these changes are something they are not. Doing this can severely damage your company’s reputation, and lead to problems when there is good news to share but your credibility has already been damaged.  

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

52 Tips for Strong PR – A 2014 Users Guide: Tip #3: The “No Comment” Conundrum

“No comment!” always sounds great in the movies and on TV. Reporters gamely don’t push back and move right on to the next question. But in real life, the world we work in, it’s more likely to be met with “You’re kidding, right? Then why am I on the phone with you?”

I’m not saying that you have to comment on every question asked, or that you need to take an interview and expect to answer questions that don’t help move your business forward, I’m just saying that the statement “no comment” doesn’t play. 

Let’s start with why you don’t want to answer certain questions. First, the answer might give away propriety information or a competitive advantage. Second, your company might have a policy that it doesn’t release certain types of information regarding the company’s customers, finances or technology. Third, it might be clear that the reporter or analyst is baiting you to answer something inflammatory or that could be used out of context later. It’s best to have a policy in place before you ever talk to a reporter about what you’re willing to comment on and what you’re not. An interview can quickly become uncomfortable for both you and the reporter if you selectively answer questions only when it’s convenient or opportune for you, and not at other times.
So what do you say when a reporter or analyst asks a question you’d rather not answer? My recommendation is to be honest instead of evasive. Simply say “that’s not information we’re ready to disclose” or “that information is considered proprietary, so we can’t answer that.” Most reporters will respect that type of answer, even if they continue to push to get the answer. Remember, that’s their job. Your job is to stay on message.

Part of the job as a PR person is to help a company or client understand the questions they are likely to get during a news push or cycle and prepare to answer them to the best of their ability. Sometimes, you have to expect hard, specific questions and you’ll need to help prepare your spokesperson accordingly. You are not doing anyone any favors by sugar coating an interview scenario, or ignoring a potential interview angle because it might make someone uncomfortable. This is especially true when the news cycle is bad, or you’re dealing with a crisis situation.
A lot of frustration can be dealt with up front, when you are talking directly with the reporter or producer, letting them know what type of questions your spokesperson can’t answer. This is not to suggest that you ask for all of the questions up front, but if you’re clear on what your client or company can’t discuss, you’re better off than if you just decide to handle if they come up during the interview.

So leave the “no comments” to the big screen and handle awkward questions like a professional. You and your client will be better off in the long run.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

52 Tips for Strong PR – A 2014 Users Guide: Tip 2: Be an Agent of Change

Clients change, messaging changes, markets change, priorities change and you change. There is very little about our job that stays the same. Even reporter’s beats change, meaning the person you spent the past 12 months developing a relationship with, might not care about your client anymore.

The job of the PR professional is to be an agent of change, helping your clients or company update and evolve its approach, message, programs, etc. so that they can leverage the change that swirls around them. It’s not easy and requires dedicated time and effort from senior members of the team. Often at agencies, this work is left to junior team members that might not have the experience to understand the changes, or appreciate how they might impact a client or company. It’s a learning curve that everyone goes through, so agencies and in-house PR teams need to ensure they have the processes in place to ensure junior team members understand the who, what, where, when and why of a successful media interaction plan.

Of course, it goes beyond staying on top of who is covering what at any given publication. It’s keeping on top of the market drivers that are changing within your client or company’s industry. This presents opportunities to engage with reporters, bloggers and other influencers that might not otherwise be interested in your company, and could lead to more detailed or specific coverage of your company.

A recent example is the changes in the HIPAA requirements that were announced last fall. We had a client that had just launched a product for this market a few months prior. That meant that they were not well-known to the reporters covering Healthcare IT, so while some had expressed interest when the product first launched, interviews didn’t always translate into coverage. We followed up with our target list in advance of the ruling going into effect and offered our client as a background resource to explain what these changes meant to companies working in the field. The uptake was much higher as we’d set up our client as an expert on a topic that reporters knew they’d be writing on. These interactions lead to several key stories in both the healthcare IT vertical, but also several in higher level tech and business press. This all came with the added bonus that our client is now a trusted resource for these editors and our agency is known as one that doesn’t just pitch client news.
It’s also important to make sure that the broader market understands any changes or shifts your clients or company makes as they evolve and grow. The last thing a company needs as it makes a change is for the industry pundits to misunderstand, misinterpret or misconstrue a change for something that it is not, especially if the change is dramatic, such as a product redesign or executive departure.

Bottom line, your job is to help your company through any change or transition it might go through. And when you do, stay calm (see Tip 1!)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

52 Tips for Strong PR – A 2014 Users Guide Tip #1: Be the Calm

PR is an ever-changing, swirling, mess of a profession. It can be the calm before the storm or the tempest that sweeps everything out from under you. You’ve got to keep up with a thousand different details that might change at any given moment. And part of your job is to be the calm in that storm.

When the reporter is screaming about a deadline or the client is going ballistic over a story he’s not in, your job is to stay calm and rise above. When the conference room isn’t packed before your client’s session starts or the reporter includes that juicy bit someone said but shouldn’t have, you need to remain calm. Storms swirl, all boats rise, calm. 

You want to be a resource when needed, a conspirator when required and a voice of reason when everyone else in the room has drunk the Kool-Aid. But you can’t be anything of these things if you don’t remain, you guessed it, calm…and rational.

There is a time and place for big ideas, for amazing campaigns and PR stunts that wow the world (crop circles anyone?), but there is more often a time for being the PR person that folks can count on. Reporters count on you to pitch an interesting story, to understand the details enough to help them get back the first blush of interest, and to ensure they have the access they need to write something unique and interesting and a story that other people want to read and share.
Your clients want to know that you have things handled when they go off the rails, or just seem to. They want to know that you can fix things, even when you can’t, or that at least you’ll make sure they don’t happen again. Because things will go wrong, events won’t turn out as expected, coverage won’t always be favorable. I remember an event we were part of a few years ago that had an unfortunate choice in venue and some of the attending press didn’t like it. I talked to a couple of the irked media and helped smooth things over, but the PR folks from another vendor went for Option B: they were “outraged” and “embarrassed” and unabashedly “apologetic” and built what could have been a molehill of a problem into a mountain. They even hosted, at their headquarters thousands of miles from the event, a six hour crisis situation meeting for something that was solved with a change of venue and a few soft spoken words at the airport bar.

Basically, in our world, everyone has the right to ride the madness but us, because going off the deep end doesn’t buy us anything. Doesn’t give us more credibility with reporters or gain us more respect from clients or executives. It doesn’t win you points with conference and award organizers, or gain you followers on Twitter.
Just so we’re clear, I’m not saying we can’t get mad or be direct, firm or contrary. It just means we should do it calmly, in a rational manner. This is especially true when a real crisis hits your company or client. One thing that will help it to have contingency plans in place long before a crisis hits but as important as that pre-planning is, you'll go a long way in helping your company resolve, overcome or weather a crisis if you're the calm voice in the storm.



Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Glittery Allure of the Business Press

Wall Street Journal, New York Times, CNN Money, Fortune, Forbes, Inc…the list could go on and sure as sunrise, these pubs and others like them are on the 2014 PR objectives list for thousands of companies across the country. And they should be. Coverage in one of these publications can pay huge dividends in terms of credibility, exposure, connections and recognition. Sadly, for 95% of the companies that aspire to have their story told in the business press, it will be an objective unmet when 2014 comes to a close.

Why? Because most companies don’t understand what it takes to capture and hold the attention of the reporters that write for the top business press, and don’t take advantage of opportunities they might have when the time is right.
Pick up a copy, or scan the online version, of any of the publications listed above. Count how many profiles have been written about companies during the last year. Not that many. To generate attention and interest, companies must meet the following three criteria at a minimum:

·         Have an interesting and unique point of view on a topic or trend that is currently dominating the industry;

·         Provide commentary that helps the reporter understand why this story needs to be written now; and

·         Show that the story will have a wide appeal for his or her readers and will get shared across social media.

In today’s market, that’s everything. You have to give reporters a reason to decide that the story they write about your client is one that will deliver more readers, social media shares and comments. You have to convince them that writing the story that you’re telling will deliver these results better than the last interview they did, or the one they will do immediately after they hang up with you.
There are certainly other factors that play into it: a household name, a rock star CEO, imminent regulation, etc., and if you have the above your chances of getting the interest with a business reporter goes up.

It’s sometimes hard for a company to understand that no matter what they do, their market, size, customers, etc., their story just isn’t what the business press wants to hear at the moment. We have certain clients that are regularly in the mainstream business press, from CNN to Bloomberg to WSJ and New York Times. But their story is different, and for better or worse, what they do resonates at this moment in time. Other clients struggle but are regularly covered by the top trade and vertical press, and they know that is what their customers read and they are happy.
The challenge for PR is to set the right expectations and not overpromise (“…they will write an in-depth feature story on just your company because we have friends at the pubs you want!”). It’s also important to help companies understand how they can possibly cultivate interest from business media if they happen to be part of a company that isn’t part of the “it” space at the moment. And if you do get your clients on the phone with a reporter, they cannot default to a standard product or company pitch…they need to stay relevant to what the reporter is covering.