Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Bloomberg's Verbal Gaffes Show Biz Skills Don't Always Translate

New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg's no stranger to verbal gaffes; he frequently finds himself in situations that reflect his experience as a business leader has translated into a different philosophy than a typical politician. While that can sometimes produce refreshing candor that voters will appreciate, it seems to make him unaware of how to properly respond in a crisis.

Most reading national papers or watching major news networks are probably aware that the New York metro area was hit with a blizzard Sunday night that left the area struggling to deal with up to two feet of snow. While most of the suburbs have recovered, a microscope has been trained on New York, as airport delays and transportation issues took a toll on visitors and residents alike.

Bloomberg caught the ire of city residents when he basically chastised them for complaining that their streets hadn't been cleared -- saying that the world wasn't coming to an end. That led many to seize on the fact that, as an independently wealthy person, he was incapable of showing empathy in connection with the struggle of average city residents.

On several occasions, Bloomberg has essentially called city residents "whiners" for voicing opinions that differ with City Hall's policy. While his characterization certainly holds water in some instances, when it comes to situations that are having a big impact on people, he often shows a striking lack of empathy.

It's this lack of empathy that I think most who think successful business leaders make great politicians don't always see in advance. We often complain about career politicians, but in a sense, we get to better see what we'll be getting because much of their professional life is played out in the media. Contrast that with someone like Bloomberg, who as a leader of a private company before assuming the mayor's office in New York, had to answer to no one and who didn't have to disclose any information about his business or personal life to anyone else.

This kind of "like or leave it" mentality can make it difficult to get things done in politics, as most don't have city councils or other supervisory bodies that are "rubber stamps." Also, this attitude can quickly come across as abrasive and make voters cool on you relatively quickly. Bloomberg's isolated from this concern, as he's in his last term, but verbal gaffes can be costly for politicians.

New York is a resilient city, not so much because of the leadership of its politicians, but because residents must quickly acclamate to a life that often means putting up with a variety of temporary struggles, such as power outages, building issues, etc. But like any group of people, sometimes they reach a point that makes them feel they've had enough. They're definitely in that spot this week, which has Bloomberg feeling the heat.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Careers Need Effective Messaging Too

Being a public relations pro, one of the things I consistently stress is the need to create an effective, articulate message. Unfortunately, all too often people assume the a product or service’s "wow" factor will automatically put them over the top, even though that’s not always the case. While it may not automatically seem like something that’s vital to career management, messaging should be one of your top considerations here too.

Stop for a moment and think about how we’re communicating these days. As much as we’re actually talking with others in some interpersonal setting, we’re also communicating online via some sort of social network, e-mail, etc. We may not automatically think of them as such, but all of these conversations are actually messages whose impact can vary tremendously depending on how we structure them.

When it comes to career management, we all know that we should put our best foot forward, but here too many tend to focus more on how to interact in an interview than any other step in the process. Problem is, you’ve got to do a good deal of effective positioning to even get to the interview – especially in an era where unemployment rates are still hovering a post-Depression highs and not forecast to decline dramatically over the next couple of years.

Given that, put some thought into the messages you create when you’re seeking a career. Concentrate on using specific words and phrases that articulate how your skills are better than the competition’s. And if you’re between jobs, please – no matter what you do – don’t label yourself as unemployed. Hiring managers these days are becoming increasingly concerned about someone’s skills becoming rusty, given the fact that long-term unemployment – that is people who’ve been without a job for at least six months – is also at post-Depression highs.

During your job search, focus on doing all you can to get your skills in front of people, whether it’s starting and promoting a blog showcasing your skills or doing pro-bono media relations for a local non-profit. All of these things will not only illustrate the sharpness of your skills, but will also get you in front of someone who might very well be able to help you.

And when you do get some help, whether it’s a recommendation from a former employer, a job interview, etc., please make sure you properly acknowledge that help. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard hiring managers say that if they have two equally qualified candidates, they’ll advance someone who remembered nice touches like sending a follow up "thank you" letter to someone for an interview.

One of the venues where I spend a good deal of time each week is LinkedIn. As such, I have an opportunity to review a number of different profiles. I’ve been amazed to see some list their current position as "unemployed." These people may be superbly qualified for a great opportunity, but honestly, I rarely read past that because of the way they position themselves. Given the fact that this tight labor market is likely to last for some time to come, think about messaging and use clever, concise descriptions of your skills and experience in hopes of giving yourself a leg up on the competition!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Economic Downturn? Wouldn't Believe It By This Story

We've been living through an economic downturn that in scale is unlike anything we've seen in this country in easily more than 30 years -- some say since The Great Depression. Yet you wouldn't know it to read one tale involving a major international PR firm.

The PR Coach featured an interesting tale of a small Dallas-based software company that markets a technology platform for restaurants trying to hire a major international firm.

As is often the case, the in-house marketer had to work furiously to convince senior management to hire a PR firm. After a few weeks of reluctance, he gave in and the marketing executive brought representatives from a well-known firm in for a meeting. Following a meeting that involved a variety of team members, including high-level officials, an agency executive indicated they'd be putting together a proposal that the prospect would have within a week's time.

More than two weeks went by without any response from the firm, despite attempts to get information on the proposal's status via e-mail, cell phone outreach, etc. Finally, another executive in the agency is reached, apologizes and indicates the senior member of the team who met with the prospect has been traveling and will put together something soon. Perhaps not surprisingly, nothing was ever submitted by the firm, leaving the in-house marketer frustrated and furious.

Unfortunately, it's a sad tale that irritates many who don't work in the global agencies. While their bottom line can withstand not getting that prospect's business, their actions damage the industry as a whole and are one of the prime reasons we have an image problem. Paradoxically, they're also in many cases the same firms that head up PR industry efforts to rehabilitate its image. Anyone else see a problem here?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pass On a “Spec” Opportunity

One of the methods I use to keep an eye on the “pulse” of the PR industry is participating in professional forums on LinkedIn. Recently, I've come across a number of postings by younger professionals that highlighted a trend I thought others might be interested in.

While certainly not new, the trend of asking for work to be done on "spec" – i.e. as a sort of audition before landing an ongoing and/or permanent role with an organization – has seemed to be on a dramatic rise given the current economy. Although it's certainly easy to see why individuals would be interested in taking this route, especially if they're relatively new to the industry, these types of opportunities should generally be considered offers you can refuse.

There's nothing inherently wrong with wanting to prove your merit to a potential client or employer and there's certainly no mystery as to why they ask. The potential employer or client is essentially getting a portfolio of work for free. Although the potential employer or consultant may see benefit in going along with this arrangement, remember that for the other side there's nothing but upside, whereas for you, it's at best a mixed picture.

From hearing others' tales of these situations, the biggest issue lies in the fact that almost all the time, they get the job seeker or consultant nowhere. There's almost always some "hang up" that the other side has with the work: its quality, the way it was done, the time in which it was completed. In many cases, it could be something that could win industry acclaim, but still wouldn't be good enough for the prospect or potential employer.

At the end of the day, what the potential employee or consultant is left with is a time investment that was at best not productive. We tend to think of time as something that's valuable only to the very wealthy or important, but the truth of the matter is, time is a commodity that none of us can manufacture. Therefore, it has value and should be used wisely. Given that, the best course of action when you're embarking on a search for a job or a new client is to devise a plan that specifies what type of arrangement you're looking for, along with tactics that position you with a decent chance of getting it and stick to it.

Using this approach doesn't ensure success, but it does come with a much higher likelihood that your time will have been used for a worthy pursuit. Even if your ultimate goal isn't achieved right away, no matter how long it takes you can feel better that you maximized the time you had to pursue it. In contrast, if you'd continued with the speculative opportunity, there's a chance that you will come away empty and behind the "8 ball" in terms of time.

Lest you think I'm just preaching from the pulpit and not speaking of experience, like many PR pros, I went there too earlier in my career. And while few things in life can be spoken of with any degree of certainty, I feel certain in saying that should you try a similar situation, yours will end up like mine: with nothing to show for it.

While the economy's improving on many fronts, the job picture is estimated to be relatively weak for the next 24 months, given the sheer number of individuals that have to be absorbed back onto payrolls and the average number of jobs being gained in a given month. With that the case, these “speculative” offers are likely to come fast and furious for some time.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

This Was News?

OK, I get it; Twitter's all the rage and everything they do or even think about doing gets covered with microscopic detail. However, I was a bit surprised when the whole tech news world basically stopped for a second while Twitter unveiled details that many think will pave the way to an ad-supported business model.

As most anyone who follows tech knows, how Twitter's going to make money has been one of the biggest reasons the platform has stayed in the press -- at least if you don't count Kanye West's most recent apology to Taylor Swift. We've all been waiting for many months, especially after the announcement of several new high-level executives, to see what kind of innovative platform for making money the firm was going to unveil.

This week we got our strongest hints when Twitter unveiled some changes designed to basically keep people on Twitter.com for much longer periods. Most know think they're leaning toward an ad-supported business model -- which leads me to my next big question. "Haven't we been there before?"

It seems Twitter thinks that it will be able to finance itself with ads despite the fact that the increasing glut of inventory has pushed down ad prices significantly. Bottom line: Advertising brings in less money all the time because there are more places to display ads and because reading patterns are becoming much more fragmented.

To be fair, Twitter did unveil several new features on its site, including the ability to include multimedia content, that many see as a move Twitter is making to directly position itself as a Facebook competitor. One big difference I see, however, is Facebook is designed as more of a "walled" garden where you can control who sees the content you distribute. In contrast, Twitter's more of a broadcast platform designed to get your message out to as many as possible. This is illustrated not only in the ability to send messages to followers, but by the fact that retweets are often the primary reason that someone's message gets wide enough distribution for mass attention.

Niall Harbison of The Next Web penned a laudatory piece on the announcement, saying that what at first appears like a Web site upgrade will emerge as something much more meaningful given the role that Twitter now plays in our every day lives.

Time will tell on that prediction, but it seems to me it's going to take more than another ad model for Twitter to reach its full potential.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Even Gifted Communicators Can Make PR Flubs

Two characteristics that are commonly linked together are the ability to manage in a crisis and gifted communications skills. We seem to assume those automatically go together in a gifted leader; however, if there's one situation that proved this isn't always the case, it's the Manhattan mosque debate.

As most reading this column have probably heard, a Manhattan developer and the leader of a mosque in the financial district teamed together to promote the idea of an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan called Park 51. While the development cleared its final hurdle on Aug. 3 when the city's Landmark Preservation Commission approved its construction, a national battle was just getting underway.

Many Republican and conservative leaders – coincidentally all from outside New York City – pounced on the story, with Sarah Palin going as far as to call the mosque an "unnecessary provocation." New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg was the only sane voice in the conversation and the only one to consistently defend the organization's right to build at the planned site. President Obama, who is widely regarded as someone with a "gift for gab" almost instantly found himself in hot water, proving the danger that anyone communicating in a crisis faces when they let anyone "hijack" the facts.

The president did make an impassioned defense of the mosque, but almost immediately found himself attacked by everyone from Palin to some families of the victims of the September 11th attacks. What he apparently didn't realize is that often engaging in debate is something that is not only perilous, but foolhardy.

In my mind, from a communications standpoint, this issue was simple. The approval of any religious facility's construction is a local zoning issue – PERIOD. The group constructing the facility secured all of those, and as mentioned, every permit needed for approval was secured by early August. Given that the federal government was in no way ever involved in the situation, the president missed a great opportunity to stay above the fray and let others fight whatever fight they had in mind.

President Obama's gaffe – or at least that's what I perceive it as – illustrates an age-old conflict in PR about responding in a crisis. We all know that sometimes they best thing to say is very little or nothing at all. There will be many times in a crisis when you're better off letting the situation unfold to some natural conclusion, or at least the next phase, without issuing a public commentary. Yet, there will also be other times when complete silence is not the best stance to take, as it gives the appearance that a person or company is trying to avoid dealing with an obvious situation.

These conflicting situations are why crisis communications is so difficult. Simply put, we all seem to want a pre-fabricated template that we can consult following the emergence of any crisis – sort of a “cheat sheet” that says when "x" happens, do "y." It would be fabulous if such a convention could be devised, but for better or worse, life's just not that simple. Trouble is, people seem to either lack the ability to communicate effectively or they let their decision process become fogged in a moment of crisis.

Letting this "fog" sweep in generally means you'll be dealing with a crisis much longer than if a more effective approach had been taken. To go back to the mosque debate, if President Obama had simply and consistently said something to the effect of "While I understand the impassioned views of many on this issue, at its core the decision of whether or not to construct the mosque in Lower Manhattan is a local zoning issue. The group sponsoring its construction has obtained all the necessary approvals for its construction, which hopefully will bring this debate to a close."

While nothing is certain, I'd be willing to wager a pretty penny that if the president had followed this strategy, he would have been able to get a month of his political life back. Instead, he spent valuable time letting others mop the floor with him and linking the mosque's construction to all sorts of other initiatives that had nothing to do with one another. Often, the most victory one can hope for following the emergence of a crisis is to minimize time spent on dealing with it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Crisis Response Is All About Balance

As I wrote recently, BP's handling of the public relations disaster it was faced with following the Deepwater Horizon disaster surely won't be taught to students as a template for crisis communications. However, when it comes to crisis response, it's important to note that a balanced approach is key to minimize damage.

This month's crisis involving a major business brand involves Hewlett-Packard's decision to fire former CEO Mark Hurd following a sexual harassment claim from a woman who worked as a contractor for the company. Seeking to counter the notion that boards of directors are often asleep at the wheel and slow to respond, the company's board pressured Hurd to tender his resignation, which he did on Aug. 6. While the company certainly hoped Hurd's departure would make the issue disappear and allow the firm to return to normal, in some ways, it's been anything but that.

The New York Times reported on Tuesday that the company followed the advice of its PR counselor, APCO, which told the company's board the best stance would be to fully disclose all elements of the case, ranging from the unsupported allegations of sexual harassment, to Hurd's alleged falsification of expense reports – itself grounds for termination. One would imagine both APCO and HP were calculating, and certainly hoping, that in the end this would be the best course of action. However, in the ensuing days following Hurd's departure, the company has endured a mixed bag, with corporate governance experts saying the board acted appropriately, while many others see Hurd's departure as an event that could harm H-P's long-term performance and its ability to transform itself into a services company along the lines of IBM.

While most PR pros won't be called into handle a crisis of this magnitude, this situation is also one that can serve as a template of sorts because it perfectly illustrates how crisis response involves making tough decisions that involve alternatives that all look dangerous. Generally speaking, crisis communications pros do recommend companies to take swift command of a situation because you don't want to appear oblivious to a crisis, a la BP. However, that doesn't mean that a swift decision on big issues should be an immediate reaction. If you recall, what got BP so much negative press was the fact that many executives were seen as viewing the disaster as an intrusion into their lives. Certainly, no one was happy that it took as long as it did to cap the well, but on the whole, that wasn't the key fact that made it such a crisis for the company.

Likewise, many believe HP should have taken the time to conduct a more thorough investigation of the alleged harassment. If, following an investigation, the evidence showed that Hurd did act improperly toward the former contractor, then HP's board would have been on firm ground to dismiss him. However, if an investigation determined that there was little or no evidence of harassment, then shareholders, customers and most other influential groups would have probably supported the board's decision to keep him.

What both of these cases show is that it's often the mishandling of information during a crisis, and not necessarily the decisions made in its wake, that bring the most harm to a company's reputation. Influential audiences want a company to conduct a thorough investigation so that all the key facts can be unearthed because this will likely result in smoother sailing for the company later on, regardless of the specific circumstances. These cases show that what companies involved in a crisis need to do quickly is communicate all the information they know about a crisis and provide regular updates to key audiences. Also, they should ensure that the company's CEO, or another high-ranking official, quickly assumes the defacto post of crisis czar and always appears in command of the situation.

Finally, it's important that your messaging remain consistent. In other words, don't give one set of messages to one audience and a separate message to another based on what you fear their reactions might be. It's better to be open and honest from the "get go" rather than risk the chance that the attempt to over manipulate the message will come back to "bite" later.

The last, and sometimes most important, piece of the crisis communications puzzle is the crisis response plan. This plan lays out the procedures that must be taken in the event of a crisis and designates the individuals that will perform key tasks, such as communicating with employees or the media. Every organization that faces the prospect of dealing with a crisis, even if that crisis at first seems mundane, should have a crisis communications plan. In addition, you should make sure that every key employee is aware of its existence and clearly understands his/her responsibilities should a crisis occur.

Remember that every organization, no matter how large or small, faces significant consequences from improperly handling or responding to a crisis. Given that, it's important to make an investment in planning now to avoid a big problem down the road.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

BP Spill Likely to Serve as Template for Bad Crisis PR

When a company finds itself in a crisis that matches the level of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, odds are a wave of bad publicity will be coming your way regardless of what steps you take to correct the disaster and how you handle the PR aspect of the crisis. We all know that this disaster will rank as the worst environmental catastrophe in our country's history. At this point, I'd say the public relations response will also rank as one of the worst as well.

From the beginning, the parties involved, which not only include British Petroleum but Transocean and other international players, did almost nothing right when it comes to communications. Rather than portraying an image that they were taking charge of the situation, everyone almost immediately began to pass the buck and start debating who was at fault and who bore the primary responsibility of responding and cleaning up the disaster.

That type of strategy showed from the get-go that the executive suite, and particularly those involved with and concerned with the company's ongoing financial affairs, were in charge of the response. No one with any training in crisis communications would have handled things the way the parties involved did in the beginning. What has transpired since is a situation that could pose as serious a threat to BP, like Johns Manville.

Never heard of them? The company developed asbestos, which was used in a variety of commercial purposes following its debut in the 1930s. Virtually all the pipes in this country were made from asbestos before the advent of PVC a few decades later. Johns Manville was one of the nation's industrial giants until financial losses that were the result of lawsuits filed over the lung damage caused by asbestos drove the firm into bankruptcy. It reorganized under bankruptcy protection in the late '80s and became part of the Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate in 2000. It hasn't manufactured asbestos in decades and still is a leader in a variety of building-product categories.

The point of that anecdote is that many executives are foolish enough to think that missteps will never cost them dearly, no matter how big the failure. Many always believe their company will be a large enough ship to withstand any wave, even though history is full of examples to the contrary. While no one thinks of it at the time the collapses begin, one of the key threads in many disasters of this type involve communications and the way a company handles crisis response.

This makes it vital to think about how you and your client or the company for which you work will respond to a crisis should one occur. The first and most important rule is to develop a crisis communications plan in advance and make sure everyone in the organization is aware of it and the procedures that are to be followed. All it takes is one person, no matter what level of the organization he or she occupies, to be "off script," and major damage can be wrought.

The second rule is to realize that once a crisis hits, you'll be in the limelight and likely may stay there for quite some time. One of the reasons BP CEO Tony Hayward got so much negative press about that now-infamous golf outing is not only because people found it in poor taste, but also because they couldn't believe he would let himself get caught golfing in the midst of a crisis. Being in the limelight obviously has its perils, but it also presents a unique time to take command of a situation and reverse a bad situation quickly. Smart companies do all they can to turn the situation around as quickly as possible.

Another wise tactic to follow is to make sure that anyone in your organization or working for a client has been media trained. Many executives like to think that they've got a "gift" when it comes to media relations, but honestly few do, and you don't want to take that chance with your client. If you have a good relationship with the client, they should be willing to take your counsel when it comes to media training and other elements that are vital to the successful handling of a crisis. If they aren't willing to take your counsel, that should raise big, red flags.

With any luck, most of you won't find yourself in the midst of a major communications crisis. However, PR pros often are surprised to find themselves in the middle of a crisis -- either because they thought they did everything to avoid one or because they thought the client was too "mundane" to ever find itself in the midst of one. As is the case with any disaster, the best defense is preparation. Good preparation can not only safeguard your client relationship and the success of your PR and communications program, it might very well save your client from ruin.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Don't Be Fooled: PR Is Not All About Relationships

There are many misconceptions that individuals have about public relations, especially those who have never hired a PR consultant or agency before. But the one I'd say tops the list is the notion that successful PR pros are limited to those who have personal relationships with influential journalists.

Ever since the PR industry stood by while this reputation of PR pros as being little more than people who “smile and dial” took hold, there's been a notion that if you aren't friends with someone, they won't take your call and won't run your story. PR pros themselves have in many ways tried to capitalize on this myth by saying they're the only ones who can make leading journalists pick up their phones.

Interestingly, neither the client nor the agency/consultant usually sees the big problem with this approach. Simply put, how well do they think that approach is going to work when the editor or reporter with whom they may have a rapport leaves or gets downsized -- situations that are happening every day in the current environment?

For the PR pro or agency, a similar question would be what are you going to do when the industry in which you've been specializing all the sudden hits a rough patch and you can no longer rely on a handful of journalist relationships? Obviously, any PR pro who has built his or her reputation on this kind of strategy is going to have a tough time convincing current or prospective clients that he or she will be able to do the job once tough times it if all they've banked on is a relationship strategy.

Instead of positioning PR strategy and execution-like sales, think of it like a typical professional service and realize that the real value comes from strategic counsel as much as execution. Just as a lawyer can't control which judge will preside over a hearing or trial, no PR pro can control who the reporter is that covers a given beat at a target publication. However, just like lawyers make planning, research, and preparation a key part of their strategy, so can PR pros.

Whether you're handling a pitch or client that's in an industry in which you have extensive experience or you're taking on a client in an industry that's relatively new to you, the elements of success are the same. Put the emphasis on research so that you can properly identify appropriate outlets and targets and spend the time to create a newsworthy pitch that incorporates an angle that will have an impact on the readers of your target publication. Once these two initial steps are done, the final step is making sure you get your message into the hands of the right reporter and editor.

When it comes to picking the appropriate contact, I prefer a mix of tools and time. By that I mean while I do use media databases, I also spend a lot of time researching the content that's appeared in a particular target. This helps you both prepare a pitch that they'll likely appreciate and ensure that you're targeting an appropriate journalist. Once you succeed on both fronts, the chances your pitch will get picked up increase exponentially.

I say all this from personal experience. Over the course of the recession, like most small PR pros, while I've maintained my industry concentrations, I've also had to pitch business in industries that were relatively new to me. However, through research and a methodical approach, I was able to find success in these areas and came to add them to my mix of service offerings. While branching out may not make for the most comfortable experience, in all likelihood it will be a necessity at one time or another. Given that, the earlier you prepare, the better.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

No Matter How PR Evolves, Message Remains King

One of the things business is fond of doing is spending endless hours debating what the future will be like and how it will threaten the way things have been done over the recent past. PR is no exception to this, with the debate largely focusing on the evolving media landscape and the increasing importance of online publications/mediums over print. However, there are some simple things that, if kept in mind, will ensure future success.

Unfortunately, one thing we've lost appreciation for in American society is the art of writing. Sure, we all claim to do it with varying regularity, but its role has changed just as the way we've “digested” information has changed. While at one point in time, it was very common for the average American to receive a daily or weekly newspaper, newspaper circulation has continued to drop -- first with the increasing influence of television and then in the mid-'90s with the proliferation of the Internet.

That trend has slowly taken us away from long-form journalism typically found in newspapers and news magazines toward shorter-form narratives on television, blogs, and other online publications. Interestingly, I would posit that most didn't notice the trend when it first started, since you don't usually time broadcast news pieces or count the words in an online news article or blog posting. It's been happening for a while, and I would put it as one of the big reasons that newspapers have run into so much trouble. Simply put, we don't really have much of an attention span anymore.

For PR pros, this trend has brought an interesting challenge. On one hand, the number of overall outlets actually has increased if you count online venues like The Huffington Post and other blogs and e-zines that actually practice journalism. On the other hand, it's required PR pros to get much more serious about something many are uncomfortable with, which is writing.

Jack O'Dwyer and others who write about the PR profession have long lamented that many people's impression of PR is basically a “smile and dial” approach where 20-somethings are unleashed on the phone, given scripts, and told to sound friendly when they pitch reporters. That approach basically made PR a “numbers game,” in that PR execs believed that if you called enough people, surely a few of them were bound to say yes to your idea. Needless to say, that approach is a tougher sale in an age where the number of potential targets is shrinking. Now more than ever, a message has to be targeted, with the right subject matching the right person for success to be found.

Rather than continually debating what the future of PR will be like and how the status quo can be maintained, I urge everyone getting into the business, and even those practicing now, to think more about what you're saying than ever before. Success comes from articulating a value proposition, along with anticipating questions and skepticisms about your story idea or pitch. Answering those even before you get very far down the road in your dialog with a particular reporter and editor will do a lot to favor your cause.

Many PR pros can also serve as valuable resources to reporters, especially those working in fields that are dominated by legal and legislative developments. In an era of shrinking newsroom budgets, reporters simply don't have the same amount of time that they once did to research stories and ideas. Therefore, PR pros who send well-researched pitches backed up with details on how the story suggestions will have a quantifiable impact will still find success.

Of course, many of the “old rules” will still apply. For example, when picking media targets, you still want to make sure that you're reaching the highest number of potential customers and clients for your client as possible. Also, try to think of quality over quantity when it comes to placements and other results. Finally, before embarking on any tactics, make sure everything's guided by a plan detailing how your efforts will further a client's goals.

While change is never easy and the evolution will certainly be unsettling, following some time-tested, common sense rules will greatly enhance the chances of a successful evolution.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Did Traditional Media Miss The Boat?

It seems everywhere you turn these days, people are either trying to determine the future of media or are lamenting the death of print journalism as we've known it. Yet in all these discussions, no one recalls a point where newspapers in particular had a chance to embrace the future and failed in a big way.

Those of us who were online in the 1990s remember bold predictions of how the commercial Internet was going to bring positive changes to the news business that would benefit the consumer and the journalist. The theory was online platforms would bridge the age gap by bringing younger consumers who were less likely to subscribe to a newspaper into the news-consumption fold. At the same time, newspapers were likely to thrive because many liked the advantages they provided, not the least of which was easy portability.

While the consumer Internet did bring an increase in some demographics, the benefit was largely muted by publishers who were so scared at killing their "cash cow" that they essentially voided any success they could have had online by continually shifting subscription policies, only making certain content available online, etc.

These strategy shifts initially didn't have much of an impact because many of the companies successfully doing business online were "off shoots" of major media companies. Things really began to change when citizen journalism, which was first seen in outlets like The Drudge Report, and now includes The Daily Kos, The Huffington Post and a number of other well-respected outlets.

With this shift, start-ups began to prove that you didn't have to be a major media conglomerate to offer quality news. Add to that, the fact that these sites traditionally attracted sought-after demographics meant that they were able to cover their already low start-up and operating costs relatively easily.

Over the last two years, while much has changed on the social news front, very little has changed in the newspaper arena, with the exception of the fact that many outlets are losing money. Papers know better than to abandon their Web sites, but only The Wall Street Journal has figured out how to make money from its online presence. The move online is one of the key reasons that big battles between editorial staffers and management have played out at The Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe to name a couple.

Meanwhile, journalism graduates and long-time scribes alike are villifying major media organizations for making it much harder to earn a living as a reporter these days. In a discussion on the media-centric site Mediabistro recently, many writers were taking aim at "content mills" like Associated Content, which pays writers relatively little money to produce content for sites like Livestrong -- at least when compared to $1 a word or better at well-known trades and larger outlets.

From a societal standpoint, one can argue this shift has been a bad thing. However, there's enough blame to go around for allowing it to happen. Newspapers had more than a decade to figure out a new business model, but were instead happy to rely on their tried-and-true model that basically relied on low-cost labor for the most part. Had it not been for the fact that most scribes earned very little money for much of their careers, the model would have fallen apart 20 years ago. This meant there was relatively little fat that outlets were willing to trim when times got tough.

What journalism honestly needs now are well-respected individuals willing to serve as cheerleaders for an industry that's done great things for society over the years. Hopefully that will come before it's too late.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

A Challenge to PR Pros: Defend Your Expertise

An interesting discussion got kicked off last week on LinkedIn following a posting by an entrepreneur who issued a challenge to PR pros. Only it wasn't your typical challenge and it highlighted one of the reasons that PR doesn't get the respect it deserves.

This "dare" involved an effort to try and find someone willing to operate on a pay-for-placement basis in an effort to secure press for a personal grooming device that he didn't really elaborate on extensively. Predictably, the suggestion unleashed a firestorm of comments for about a week from PR pros who were irked that he was basically saying most PR firms just take their clients' money and can't really get clients in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, etc. His offer was to arrive at a fee scale based on a paper's circulation.

What he didn't realize is that there are already several firms that claim to operate on this model. But rather than just point out that fact as I did and let him choose to go with one of those if he wished, many practitioners got upset at the suggestion, pointed out it was unethical, etc. Unfortunately, while passions get stoked by such dares, the profession doesn't really do much as a whole to defend itself against those challenges and unjust comparisons to other professions.

As PR pros, if we're going to counter such arguments, we need to use other arguments besides ethics because, honestly, a client that's going to try and secure that kind of arrangement doesn't care about ethics. And many PR pros will take the challenge, either because they're trying to break into the field and want to just try it for the clips or because in this economy, they need any possible revenue they can find. Neither side is going to care about the fact that it's against the PRSA Code of Ethics because in all likelihood no one involved in that potential transaction is a PRSA member, thus making that point moot.

The entrepreneur also mentioned that some law firms operate on this model – a typical point that's made in these discussions. However, what people bringing up this angle never highlight is the fact that contingency work, which is what this type of arrangement is called, is really only used by personal-injury attorneys and others having a specialty representing plaintiffs. Because such firms receive a relatively high percentage of any money collected, if they can get enough cases in the pipeline, odds are enough of them will work to sustain a business.

One of the things that very few PR pros ever mention is that the biggest component to whether a product or service makes it in the market is whether or not it's actually unique and/or serves a need that enough people have. While there's a conspiracy theory among many entrepreneurs that anytime a PR program doesn't secure a ton of ink, it's the firm or consultant's fault, in reality it's most often because the product or service just isn't that appealing. This is further illustrated by the fact that so few products actually succeed on the market.

To me, more PR pros should go as far to do as much as they can to get these kinds of inquiries off their plate because nobody can build a business with these kinds of companies. Part of having a solid bottom line result is making your business run as efficiently as possible with the maximum margins possible. Put into plain English this means you want to minimize the amount of time you spend on non-billable activities, such as selling, and put more time into activities that actually earn revenue.

Secondly, as Michigan PR pro Alan Stamm so eloquently put in an article he authored on Ragan.com last week, PR pros need to avoid a "vending machine" approach to PR and focus on the fact that media relations is just one PR tactic. Social-media engagement, analyst relations and other tactics are often a big piece of an ongoing program – something that most people never mention.

One of the best pieces of advice came from PR practitioner Amanda Cooper of Victoria, British Columbia.

"Some people think that any publicity is good publicity. I say 'be careful what you wish for.' I am curious as to what would happen if a P.R. professional took you up on your offer and an uncomplimentary write-up happened. Does the P.R. pro still get paid?"

Finally, anyone who's been in the business for any length of time will tell you the most vital part of ensuring a successful client relationship is establishing clear expectations up front. In the minds of many, even if it's something that makes sense on some level, one of the biggest problems with "pay for performance" is arriving at a metric everyone can agree on. Beyond only paying for certain circulation achievements, how much "ink" qualifies as a hit?

Unfortunately, if the reputation of PR as a valuable service is going to change, it's professionals that have to lead the charge. We owe it not only to ourselves but our clients to do a better job of communicating our value proposition and explain that just as no single product can literally be a fit for anybody, no single PR strategy is going to work for every single company.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

We're More Than List Builders

I've often maintained that PR as an industry is in bad need of some good PR. A new discussion underway amongst professionals has me thinking this view needs to be broadened to include not only the industry as a whole, but the people who practice it.

A long-running conversation on LinkedIn features a variety of PR pros giving their views on sharing media lists with clients and soliciting opinions in regard to policies employed at various agencies. While the intent of the original poster was to solicit opinions on whether (s)he should share a media list with a client, it actually opened up a whole can of worms.

The central issue, as I and other respondents see it, is that this wouldn't even really be an issue if PR pros better positioned themselves and were more confident in their abilities. In other words, while tactics and the success of the tactics employed are a big part of what makes of successful, the strategy used to determine the actual tactics is what determines everything.

Unfortunately, strategy is something we rarely talk about. Pitch meetings with prospective clients are dominated by promises of high-level media placements and pronouncements of capabilities. Yet, the very fact that these elements take center stage at a pitching meeting sets up a situation where you're going to live or die by the hits only. It also positions the industry as little more than a telemarketing operation specializing in delivering marketing messages.

Any PR pros who work for small or mid-sized businesses can back this up. Often, clients will leap the assumption that if you don't personally know every editor at a publication you're pitching, you'll go nowhere. They don't even think about the fact that the messaging you use and other elements you create will be as instrumental, if not more so, than any relationships you may have. No one expects every lawyer to know every judge they may appear before on a personal level, but yet PR pros have let themselves get backed into that corner. Worse still, we've got no one to blame but ourselves.

My challenge to PR pros out there: Position yourself as a strategist who employs customized tactics that suit a client. Don't let yourself be known as someone who only does the "smile and dial."

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Sometimes Less Really is More

Ironically, one of the toughest things about being a public relations counselor is getting clients to actually take our counsel. Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than the process of determining media targets.

Long, long ago it seems, PR pros let themselves get pigeon-holed into a "YES!" mentality when it comes to any request from a client. For example, if you were to eavesdrop on a typical PR agency pitch meeting, when a typical question like "Can you get us into The Wall Street Journal?" comes up, the answer will many times go something like this "Sure, we have many contacts there. They all know us and are always eager to feature our clients."

There would, of course, be nothing wrong with that if it were typically true. And it's not that it's never true; rather that the question is one that's impossible to answer honestly with the level of information you typically walk away from following an initial pitch meeting. In a sense, these meetings involve everyone putting on their best face – yes, even the prospective client.

While it's true that the prospect holds all the cards in terms of the buying process, the fact that they're looking for a PR firm illustrates the fact that they're eager to get the third-party validation that comes from an objective news article in a leading business or trade publication. So, in a sense, they're working hard to have the agency or consultant come away believing they've got the best thing since sliced bread and the agency or consultant is working hard to get them to believe they know how to butter that bread better than anyone. The problem with this approach is it paves the way for unrealistic expectations and/or a problematic relationship from the get-go – and that's IF they hire you.

As I've written many times before, one of the biggest problems with PR is its high client turnover rate. I believe one of the biggest reasons the turnover rate is so high is because PR pros are too hesitant to give feedback and counsel that clients may not want to hear. When a prospect asks whether a placement can be secured in a particular media outlet, rather than instantly saying "YES!," the focus should shift to the PR program's objectives, including the audience the prospect wants to reach.

While there's an automatic notion that a placement in The New York Times is the best thing you can have, depending on the product or service you offer, that may not always be true. In media relations, you don't just want to reach the most people, but the right people. Thus, if only 10 percent of the readers of The New York Times are potential customers but 90 percent of the readers of a well-respected trade publication are likely buyers, the trade publication may very well be your best bet.

Likewise, when it comes to determining value from a PR program, be careful in how you say you're going to do that. Last week, I saw a PR pro write on a well-known social-networking site that they still use the ad-equivalency model. For those who may not know, that model basically multiples the space your story occupies and translates that into what it would cost to secure an ad of the same size. It was created in large part because the number that you will arrive at will often look impressive. Problem is, it's not really connected to the business objectives of the client at all.

Everything in a program or proposal that you put together should be tied to business objectives that are important to the client or the prospect. Not only does this approach allow a new program to start off with both client and agency/consultant on the same page, it also helps eliminate much of the confusion and frustration down the line. Using this approach, instead of filling in blanks to simple questions like "What media outlets do you want to reach?," you and the client go down a path that has both examining what the PR program should accomplish and how best to get there.

The answers to this question may very well generate a program that has a smaller list of targets and places an emphasis on fewer program elements. However, the long-term dividends may be much greater than a program that emphasizes numbers for their sake alone.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Establishing Trust in the Age of Social Media

The "end goal" of all marketing efforts is to turn information gatherers into trusted consumers. While PR and advertising both work toward this goal, one of the greatest selling points of social media has been that trust will come faster since the real focus is on sharing information and not selling. Unfortunately, a new survey indicates that's not yet true.

Edelman, the nation's largest independent PR firm, has for years conducted an extensive round of interviews of consumers in conjunction with its annual Trust Barometer. Edelman recently published the results of its 10th annual survey, which yielded some surprises.

Of the 4,875 people aged 25 to 64 surveyed, the number of people who people who trusted information from "people like me" dropped from 47 percent to 27 percent. Digital media in particular fared poorly; only 11 to 22 percent of those surveyed indicated they trusted blogs, social networks and other free content sources, such as Wikipedia or Google News.

Traditional media, as one might expect, didn't fare very well either. Trust in television news dropped from 44 percent to 24 percent; trust in newspapers declined from 46 to 32 percent and radio fell from 48 percent to 31 percent -- it's smaller drop probably a reflection of the fact that radio news is generally much more pervasive in larger markets.

While the traditional media results were probably not surprising, most were dismayed by the social-media numbers, since the premise of the medium has generally been that people will trust information and recommendations from friends more than third parties they don't know. This survey shows that, while the results all around were relatively poor, some do place value in having a trusted gatekeeper -- something that's always been held as the primary advantage of major media outlets.

Edelman chief Richard Edelman can be seen elaborating on the survey here

Friday, January 22, 2010

Article Predicts Growth in Social Media Spending

As the economy struggles to recover, those of us in the marketing industry are eagerly watching for signs of growth. While the overall picture still remains a bit murky, the consensus view is that social-media spending will continue to grow.

A new survey conducted by Alterian, a Web content management and social-media monitoring firm, predicts social media will continue to do well. Alterian received 1,068 responses to a survey conducted both online and at live conferences.

Of the respondents, about 40 percent said they would be shifting at least 20 percent of their marketing budget to social media. Also, 36 percent indicated they've already made substantial social-media investments. Perhaps surprisingly, however, 42 percent don't incorporate data gathered from their various online channels to assist them in better tracking sales leads.

While this survey indicates a promising future for social media, it's hard to know exactly what this will mean for the industry as a whole because a social-media presence can vary greatly from one firm to another. Some consider a mere blog as a social-media investment whereas others will probably go on to create more robust, interactive content networks to engage prospective and current customers.

One thing that any company would be wise to do when embarking on a campaign is to simultaneously create a system to capture and analyze data from social-media activity. This is more important in social media than any other form of marketing because social media platforms offer a range of opportunities for companies to encourage prospects to willingly engage with their brand.

Certainly the jury's still out on the exact form that the most successful marketing strategies of the future will take. But one thing's clear: Conventional advertising and other strategies that once had the market cornered are rapidly losing favor to newer options that give companies a better idea of a campaign's effectiveness and data that allows continual customer and prospect engagement.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Ad Age Article Challenges PR Industry's Digital Prowess

In a broad ranging article discussing the overall outlook for the advertising industry in 2010, Ad Age takes a swipe at public relations agencies and their response to the emergence of digital platforms, such as social-media outlets

Broadly speaking, the article says public relations agencies have been standing by during the interactive explosion, much as they did during the dot-com boom in the 1990s. The result, the article claims, is that PR agencies have lost business they should be handling to direct marketing agencies, digital consultancies and related businesses.

The article says the PR industry needs to be putting its emphasis on understanding which of the remaining media outlets will have the most impact on customer decisions and reallocate their staffing to include more individuals that understand how to properly respond to these trends on their clients' behalf.

As I write this about two hours into the work day, a whole host of PR pros have retweeted the headline/URL of this story and have gone on to say that while there's still work to be done in understanding where we're heading and arriving at a successful implementation, the industry as a whole has done pretty well at adapting.

One claim the article makes that I wholeheartedly disagree with is the claim that PR agencies largely stood by following the emergence of the dot-com boom and lost business as a result of it. If anything, I think the PR industry overreacted to the dot-com boom and overestimated the lasting impact it would have on the industry, and marketing in general.

While many of the predictions made during that time have borne or started to bear fruit, I think one of the main reasons for the dot-com bust was the fact that broadband technology was not yet mature and pervasive enough to carry the benefits into the country's homes and businesses. We often forget that most American consumers now have more bandwidth in their homes than was serving an entire enterprise during the mid 1990s. Given that, it's no wonder that PointCast couldn't make it or that instant messaging companies couldn't survive as standalone businesses as Twitter is now.

I also think the article overlooks the fact that it's far from clear who the overall winners will be in the "digital revolution." As I've written many times before, we certainly have the technology in place to bring in a sea change in terms of the way information is distributed and consumed. That said, just like early attempts to reinvent information distribution failed because of the lack of broadband pipes, the new information platforms have yet to arrive at a solid business model. Once the business matures and we have a better idea of the winners and losers, the real jockeying can begin.