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!,,, 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.