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.