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.