When an organization is hit with a crisis, the response will often determine how long the crisis will last, in terms of negative media coverage, as well as any long-term erosion in brand reputation or lead revenue.
That’s why PR execs need to keep a close eye on how the crisis now engulfing Blue Bell Creameries plays out. On Monday the company announced that it is voluntarily recalling all of its ice cream products, because of listeria concerns, following a succession of smaller recalls.
Blue Bell realized its initial assumption that the bacteria was isolated to one machine in one room was “wrong,” after an additional half gallon of contaminated ice cream was found in its Brenham, Texas facility, according to a statement from Paul Kruse, the company’s president-CEO.
Blue Bell is trying to get in front of the crisis, which, considering the severity of the situation, may cause further damage to the 108-year-old brand. In a little more than a month, three deaths and several illnesses in Kansas and possibly Texas have been linked to the company’s products.
For communicators, the major takeaway from Blue Bell’s initial response is that however fast PR attacks a problem, it’s probably not fast enough.
In a digital age, the window for responding to a crisis keeps getting smaller.
“When there’s a recall and somebody does something quickly and when they handle it properly, we forgive it,” Phil Lempert, food industry analyst for SupermarketGuru.com, told The New York Times. “When it’s the entire product line or the entire company, people are very concerned.”
Blue Bell, which sells ice cream in 20 states, in no way is downplaying those concerns.
In a video apology (get used to it) posted on the company’s website and Facebook page, Kruse said: “We’re heartbroken over the situation and apologize to all of our Blue Bell fans and customers. Ice cream is a joy and pleasure to eat. It certainly is for me, and I do it every day. And it should never be a concern. For that, we apologize, and we’re going to get it right.”
Kruse hits the right tone, but, for the sake of transparency, he probably should have mentioned the deaths that have been linked to the company products and how the company intends to compensate the victims’ families.
Blue Bell reportedly has contracted both Burson Marsteller and kglobal for crisis management.
Now comes the heavy PR lifting. How will Blue Bell use both traditional media channels and digital venues to communicate how it’s fixing the problem? A FAQ post on its website—and linked on its Facebook page—is a good start.
Correct me if you think I’m wrong, but this is the sort of crisis in which digital needs to be subordinate to the human touch. Blue Bell’s senior executives should visit the communities that have been affected by the recall and tell consumers how things are being corrected. And it has to be a multi-pronged conversation.
Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1
As Major League Baseball’s 2015 season gets under way this week, another rite of spring is just around the corner—spring cleaning.
It’s as good a time as any for PR managers and directors to assess their work, reevaluate those campaigns that worked (or failed) and recalibrate how they use media channels to get their message out and measure the results.
With that in mind, here are a few spring-cleaning tips for PR and marketing execs to consider.
> Sharpen your pitches. It’s getting increasingly harder for PR execs to get their message across the plate. This could be a function of time-poor reporters, a saturated media market, a fickle public or all of the above. Either way, communicators should take some time to sharpen the way they and their team members pitch the media. Try and figure out how to boost your odds. Does a reporter covering your industry seem to gravitate to certain stories about the sector while avoiding others? Maybe the reporter wants to cover your company but has a problem with the designated spokesperson? Maybe he or she wants an interview with the top brass? Get better (and below-the-radar) intelligence about reporters and your pitches should improve
> Retool your lineup. PR managers should get out their scorecard to see if they can reconfigure their lineup in a way that plays to individuals’ strengths. The person who seemed to get tripped up by Twitter may be better suited for producing online video programming. The person who tends to strike out pitching the media may have a knack for online analytics. With PR campaigns needing more and more disciplines—whether digital or behavioral—brand managers need to determine who’s the best person for the gig without squeezing a square peg in a round hole.
> Gauge your measurement efforts. With apologies to the late management guru Peter Drucker, “If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.” Nevertheless, PR measurement remains a severe sticking point to enhancing business communications. Part of the problem is that too many brands and organizations take a reactionary approach to measurement, failing to bake metrics into the campaign/project from the get-go. Any PR gains may be thwarted by lousy PR measurement. Senior managers don’t want “good news,” they want to see a correlation between PR and revenue (if not earnings). Use a change in season to make some changes in your measurement efforts. Perhaps you need to be more selective in the metrics you use, or maybe you’re relying too much on the algorithm and not enough on the human touch. Are you still banking on so-called vanity metrics such as “followers” and “likes”? Keep the Endust handy.
What would you add to the list?
Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1
All the talk about mentoring can make you feel a bit left out. If you are neither a mentor nor a mentee, then what the heck are you doing with yourself? The truth is, you are probably mentoring or being mentored without even knowing it. It’s the new fabric of our work culture – people helping people. If you’re not guiding someone or asking for help on a regular basis then you are missing out in a significant way.
As communicators, we need to recognize that our pace of advancement might be inversely affected by the age of our mentors. The older you are, the better off you may be if you are mentored by a Millennial. The concept of Reverse Mentoring, first championed by GE’s Jack Welch more than a decade ago, is not only a great way for senior executives to learn the nuances of social media, it’s a way to bridge the communications gap between generations, increasing morale, retention and knowledge.
Three influential PR executives I met with recently were eager to share their experiences with reverse mentoring. Said one: “One of my young employees has been showing me how to do a tweet chat. I had no idea.” Said the other: “They are taking over – best to get to know how they think.” While much of the conversation was centered around social media and younger generations holding comfortably the Digital Native mantle, it goes without saying that Millennials and the Generation Z following them into the workplace are the future leaders, current and future customers and business creators.
Identifying a mentor – formally or informally – who is of another generation than yours and embracing the unique perspective and skills that person holds will take you far. And many Millennials are schooling the senior set to great effect for the company’s brand, too.
If you’re not engaged in some sort of reverse mentoring, you are not only missing out, you will be spinning your wheels until they eventually fall off.
– Diane Schwartz
We all have our pet peeves that we cherish and use to define ourselves to ourselves. One of mine is the way people behave when looking at their mobile phones while walking or standing in public. Specifically, people in elevators gazing at their phones.
Perhaps this has happened to you: You’re waiting for an elevator, the doors open, you allow a couple of moments to pass for people to leave the elevator, no one leaves, so you step in just as some mobile-phone addict starts to leave. You nearly collide with that person as he looks up from his phone and starts to exit, and then you get the dirty look.
Each day, as I deal with this inconsiderate behavior, I feel a growing urge to take to Twitter and write, “Fellow citizens, please look up from your phones when elevator doors open to help avoid collisions.” Except I wouldn’t put it so tactfully.
So far I’ve resisted the urge.
I resist the urge by asking myself, “Would I make this statement aloud to strangers in a crowded elevator?”
Of course, I wouldn’t. At least one person would curse me out and the rest would write me off as a nut.
And that’s what Twitter and all other social channels are—elevators packed with strangers. Sharing a link to worthwhile content is one thing. Before expressing a strong opinion about anything, or making a stand about a controversial issue, remember that you’re communicating with strangers who didn’t ask you for your opinion. Would you disparage an NCAA basketball team during March Madness in a crowded elevator, to no one in particular? Maybe you would, but you would have to prepare for and expect some negative consequences. Imagine doing the same thing on Twitter.
Individuals and brands should keep this elevator test in mind before posting anything on social channels. For instance, while no one asked Starbucks to start a national conversation about race in the U.S., it launched its daring online and in-store #RaceTogether campaign, and things got so out of hand that one of its senior PR executives shut down his Twitter account temporarily.
Perhaps if Starbucks had tested this campaign in an elevator filled with strangers, it might have played out differently.
Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI
In an episode of The Simpsons, titled “Simpson Tide” (1998), Homer joins the Naval Reserve (don’t ask). During orientation Homer’s drill sergeant gives him the business. He gets in his grill, and barks, “I don’t like you!”
Homer responds with a sweet smile and puppy dog eyes. “But I like you,” Homer says. The drill sergeant, of course, is miffed, having been neutralized by Homer’s kindness.
It’s Homer’s version of embracing the hate. Now, 17 years later, as social channels explode, embracing the hate may be the next hot messaging strategy in PR and marketing.
I was reminded of Homer’s actions after seeing a Wall Street Journal report late last month that Progressive has started to reach out to Twitter users to ask whether it could use their tweets for a “project” the insurance giant is working on.
However, it seems that Progressive is only interested in integrating tweets that disparage the company’s longtime spokeswoman, Flo, the Journal said. “My idea of a nightmare situation is being force-fed Parmesan bread bites while tied to a chair in Flo’s Progressive Torture chamber,” reads one tweet. Progressive responded by asking for permission to use the tweet and for the user’s email address.
Progressive’s move is in keeping with an accelerating trend in the marketplace: embracing the hate.
With the proliferation of social networks, it’s the rare brand or organization that hasn’t incurred the wrath of consumers upset or perturbed about the company’s behavior or actions. More often that not, tweets or Facebook comments that disparage a brand come from John and Jane Q. Public being snarky because they can. Either way, it’s a hallmark of online communications.
At the outset of social media—when consumers talked smack about a company—some brand managers would first try and determine how much damage the offending comment might cause and then possibly reach out to that individual to try and remedy the situation and mitigate the hate.
That’s one solution. But Progressive and other brands like Dove may have the right idea. Instead of trying to appease consumers, why not neutralize them?
By recruiting consumers to include their “creative” in a new marketing campaign—no matter how nasty it may be—brands demonstrate a warts-and-all approach. That makes it harder for consumers to express hate and/or get on their soapbox about every little thing.
With that in mind, here are two ways for PR executives to embrace the hate—and possibly add a fresh (and all-too-human) approach to their business communications.
> Be vigilant, yet selective in reaching out. Hate on social media comes in all shapes and sizes. Tap into those tweets and social comments that may be critical of your brand but are delivered in a tongue-firmly-tucked-in-cheek style and show a flair for humor. It’s a pretty fine line between funny and down right malicious. PR managers have to make sure they don’t hurt their brands (or shareholders) with an embrace-the-hate strategy.
> Be transparent about your intentions. When you do reach out to the haters, keep the communication simple. When consumers respond to your message, make sure you clearly spell out how (and where) the tweets will be used and what consumers might get in return. This is probably an area, as good as any, in which PR and legal should work closely. When getting into what is a particularly gray (and nascent) area, you have to be extremely clear about your intentions. You don’t want the haters to get the impression that they are now quasi marketers for the company. Or maybe you do.
Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1
The story about the little engine that could is a familiar and heart-warming one, a tale of a determined underdog fulfilling a difficult task against all odds. “I think I can, I think I can” is a commonly used refrain at challenging moments.
Sometimes, though, we might be stronger to think we can’t. To admit, “I think I can’t. I think I can’t” and to seek help.
This idea was brought to light last week during PR News’ Top Women in PR Awards ceremony when keynoter JJ Ramberg, host of MSBNC’s Your Business, reminded an audience of high achievers to ask for help without the fear of reprisal or embarrassment. The women who make up our 2015 class of top female communicators are a determined group that can relate to the little engine that took on the challenge of taking a stranded train over the hill while the bigger, more able locomotives refused.
I’m fairly certain that leaders of either gender know they can’t do everything well and will seek assistance every now and then. Aside from having mentors to guide us, it’s imperative that we as communicators are also able to communicate our (momentary) weaknesses and our need for assistance. To occasionally ask for help from colleagues, peers, friends and new-found business connections is to acknowledge our limits, to learn from the assistance we receive and to pay it forward.
The next time you think you’re the little engine that could or the big engine that should, consider your options. Could you use a little help?
– Diane Schwartz
Brian Williams’ decision to take a temporary leave of absence from the anchor chair at “NBC Nightly News” has done little to quell the controversy now swirling around him after Williams admitted last week that he falsely claimed he was aboard a helicopter that was “hit and crippled” by enemy fire during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“I would not have chosen to make this mistake,” Williams said on the February 4 broadcast of Nightly News. “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft from the other.”
NBC says it is investigating the claim, but the chum is in the water, and it’s hard to see how Williams survives in the anchor chair without NBC further eroding its credibility. His trustworthiness has already taken a serious hit. What’s more, soon after Williams apologized for the claim regarding the war in Iraq came reports that Williams’ coverage of Hurricane Katrina (in 2005) now is under scrutiny.
Williams, who has been anchor since 2004, has been the face of NBC News for nearly a decade, parlaying his celebrity into appearances on corporate siblings “Saturday Night Live” and (now-defunct) “30 Rock.”
But nobody’s laughing now, as Williams’ fib could cost him his job.
The scandal is a stark reminder that even the slightest embellishment in communications could seriously damage your career and reputation, not to mention the guilt by association that your brand or organization would most likely suffer if you get caught in a lie.
With that in mind, here are a few things that PR pros should never say to a reporter, lest they are metaphysically certain of its veracity:
➢ “We have an exclusive story planned for you.” You better make sure upper management is in alignment with the particular media outlet you have in mind for the exclusive. These things can change on a dime, and nothing alienates a reporter more than having an “exclusive” suddenly disappear, particularly after he told the editorial brass.
➢ “I can get you an interview with the CEO to talk about the new campaign.” Oh really? Is this something that was definitely agreed upon during a recent board meeting to discuss a specific campaign or did the CEO mention in passing that he or she wants to be more media-friendly (without providing any kind of commitment)?
➢ “I’ll be sure and get you those numbers you need.” Nothing encourages a reporter more than being assured of getting some numbers/stats/financials that can help tell the story. But what the PR department thinks is fair game for reporters the financial department may think is off limits. Make sure those internal relationships are airtight—and you know what numbers are ready for the light of day—before you start making promises to reporters.
➢ “Let me arrange for you to get a tour of the new office/plant/etc.” Sure, PR folks are inclined to give reporters and media reps a look-see of the latest addition to the company—whether that’s a brand-new wing for the corporate headquarters or opening an office—to see how it dovetails with the overall operation. But upper management often can be persnickety about showing off things to the media. If you offer a tour, be very specific to the reporter(s) about what’s fair game and what’s off limits. Don’t write checks you can’t cash.
What would you add to the list of things PR pros should never to say to reporters?
Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1
This year’s Super Bowl lived up to its hype, and it was one of the first times in recent memory that I found the game to be more exciting than the commercials. This year’s array of $4.5m spots struck a more somber and heart-warming note than years past. Considering what’s happening on the world stage and within the NFL itself, it wasn’t such a bad idea for brands to get behind life-affirming messaging. Even Mexican Avocados looked cute! And beyond the touchdowns, interceptions and curious calls were lessons that might resonate with you as you kick off your work week, and as we count down to Super Bowl 50:
Pull the heart strings, repeatedly: The Budweiser Clydesdale/lost puppy commercial was among the most memorable ads of the night. The Budweiser commercial was rather familiar to most fans since it was viewed millions of times before it officially aired. It was a sequel to last year’s crazily popular “Puppy Love” tear-fest. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Brian Perkins, vice president, Budweiser, told USA Today.
There’s a fine line between getting consumers’ attention and turning them off: Nationwide’s “Make Safe Happen” commercial was an unwelcome surprise and quite the downer for many as we watched a “dead” boy narrate all the things he missed out on. ” Tweeters took sides, mostly against the ad. Noted one tweeter: “Nice one Nationwide. That was pretty fun to watch a commercial about dead kids with my kids. #makesafehappen more like#scaremykids.” But people are talking about it — and the connection between your child’s safety and insurance — so I’m betting Nationwide considers it a success. In a statement defending the ad, Nationwide said: “While some did not care for the ad, we hope it served to begin a dialogue to make safe happen for children everywhere.”
Play through the crisis: The case of the deflated footballs (Deflategate) still in play, the Patriots astutely fielded, or rather deflected, media questions before and after the game and proved their ability to not let a crisis disappoint fans, otherwise known as a 28-24 win.
Own up to poor decisions: Sports analysts and Monday morning quarterbacks are calling it one of the “dumbest calls ever,” and it just might be up there. But it was encouraging to hear Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and QB Russell Wilson take responsibility (and not shift the blame) for the game-ending intercepted 1-yard-line slant pass. Not a rookie mistake; rather a rookie miracle that’s catnip to the media. Which leads to my last observation:
Don’t underestimate the rookies: there’s speculation that Wilson threw the pass in the direction of a less experienced player, clearly underestimating Malcolm Butler’s determination and skill. “I just read the play and made the play,” Butler said post-game. A lesson for us all.
– Diane Schwartz
When a Florida sheriff’s office recently noticed its new crest-engraved office rug read “In Dog We Trust,” rather than “In God We Trust” it turned a $500 typo into a nearly $10k opportunity. It held an auction for the grammatically incorrect rug in which proceeds would go to the local animal rescue organization. If we could raise $9,650 (which the sheriff’s office did) for every typo, grammatical error and poor turn of phrase, bad writing and editing could actually be spun into a rather beneficial side business. Alas, poor writing or sloppy editing persists among the best brands and among the best of us. It just happens. But we can do better.
It certainly doesn’t look good for communicators when a press release is riddled with errors, when an email to a reporter is lacking punctuation and clarity or when a business memo is strung together with disparate ideas and fails to cut to the chase. Spell-check cannot save a poor communicator.
There are a few quick fixes to our post-college national writing problem:
Find an Editor: Someone on your team should serve as your editor. Never let a press release go on the wires or an important document be distributed without another set of eyes. Don’t just have anyone edit your copy – identify strong writers who have a discerning eye. Just as importantly, track the changes your editor makes so you can see for yourself what is being changed and understand your writing weaknesses.
Read Two Great Articles a Day: Whether online or in print, read something in the news or within your markets and observe how the writer grabs your interest in the first 15 seconds and how the article articulates its main points and concludes the piece. You are reading a great story, and as a storyteller you can be as interesting as that journalist.
Let Your Best Work Marinate: By this I mean don’t rush your messaging. You need to let your writing evolve over the course of a few hours or even a few days. Come back to the piece and you will always find it needs polishing and you will embrace the act of polishing because a sparkling piece of work will get noticed.
Elevator Pitches Have Legs: Sometimes an overused reference is overused because it works. If you think in terms of how you’d convey to a colleague the main points of your press release, your content marketing piece, your client email on an elevator ride from the lobby to the 10th floor, what would you say? What you come up with forms the headline and lead and helps crystallize your message. Elevator pitches get easier the more you choose to take the ride. Which leads me to the last piece of advice:
Write Your Heart Out: While writing well is not yet a lost art, the less we write complete sentences (thank you, texting!) and the less we hold up great PR writing as a benchmark of communications excellence, the more likely we are to lose ground with our stakeholders. Take your writing seriously. Craft something interesting every day. And prepare to be edited. It’s part of the writing process.
- Diane Schwartz
PS: Check out our PR News Writing Workshop on Feb 10 in San Fran. I hope you’ll be able to attend!
There are countless brands and organizations that are making intelligent use of their social platforms. Companies are deploying Facebook, Twitter et al to build closer ties to their constituents, promote a new product or service or participate in a conversation in a manner that can help to humanize the brand.
However, for every piece of social media content that adds value to, say, a media relations campaign or events marketing effort, there is another piece of social content that is at best, inane and, at worst, reprehensible. The freewheeling (ephemeral) nature of social media also makes it problematic for people to retain information, much less consider a purchase.
Podcasting is a different pitch. Where social messaging/marketing tends can be scattered, podcasts are singular, with a beginning, middle and an end. Sure, people get stoked about online contests and brand messages that might ultimately save them a little bit of money. But such efforts have a scattershot approach.
In contrast, podcasts lend themselves to plot, personality and, depending on the level of storytelling, character development. They also dovetail perfectly with what we used to call appointment viewing.
Take the wildly popular Serial, a podcast exploring a murder mystery, which ranked number one on iTunes even before its November 2014 debut.
The passion for Serial reminds us of Steve Allen’s famous quote, “Radio is the theater of the mind; television is the theater of the mindless.”
Now comes word that Reddit has rolled out its own official podcast. The podcast is designed to tell the story behind the stories on its home page. That’s smart positioning on Reddit’s part, taking a backstory approach to its podcast strategy.
But whether it’s Reddit, your own website or a dedicated app, PR pros could boost their value—and better distinguish themselves from rivals—by developing a dedicated podcast series.
Here are few tips to consider for producing quality podcasts:
> Find good pipes in-house. Perhaps the most important aspect of developing a podcast is finding someone with a mellifluous voice. Do a deep dive to locate people (employees, partners) who are often complimented on the sound of their voice and can easily steer (but not command) a conversation.
> Don’t bore the audience. Consumers have an infinite number of choices for how to spend their time online. You have to take a thematic approach that’s designed to entertain, enlighten and inform. Don’t take the easy route by producing podcasts that take a prosaic look at products and services. Find the backstory for some of your biggest successes (or failures). Be candid, not corporate.
> Take it outside the four walls. Your podcasts need to be anchored to a specific subject matter, of course. But the beauty of radio and podcasts is to veer off course every now and again and, within reason, talk about most anything under the sun. This can go a long way toward personalizing the program. By opening up the conversation you might also stumble on an expression or idea that crystallizes your company and keeps listeners coming back.
> Make it immersive. If you’re willing to go to the time and expense of creating a podcast series, make sure it’s participatory for your audience. Have people call in to broaden the discussion. Invite some of your best customers or clients to appear on the show. Go “on location” to where your audience(s) may congregate. Make sure the community is vested in the podcast.
What would you add to the list?
Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1