Trained to Annoy vs Trained to Cater. You Decide.

All I had purchased was a $4 barrette and was treated like I was acquiring a $40,000 diamond necklace. Juxtapose that with my experience on Amtrak this past weekend, and you might agree that our country would be better off if our rail system were run by a boutique owner. First, and briefly, about the barrette:

The associate who rang up my purchase complimented me on my choice of barrette, proceeded to wrap the item in a beautiful box and place it delicately in a beautiful bag that I am sure I’ll reuse. Not to be outdone, she squished the bag handles together with a lovely ribbon (have you ever described Amtrak as lovely)? The associate reminded me that I had 14 days to return the $4 barrette but if I have any questions or concerns to contact her.  Wow. I am loving my barrette.

Contrast this with my trip on Amtrak last weekend. Soup to nuts, it was a mixed bag. The good part is that I got to my destination and back home scar-less and safely (have we lowered the bar or what?). First, the machines to dispense tickets weren’t working so I waited in a line 30 people deep, feeling very “analog, and asked the Amtrak employee why the machines weren’t working for the second week in a row (“Don’t know, honey. Guess they’re broke.”). She was either referring to “broken” machines or to Amtrak’s financial state. Not sure. The Amtrak associate never greeted me, made eye contact or thanked me. Remember, this comes shortly after my barrette purchase, so I had high expectations.  She handed me my ticket without even putting it in one those well-branded Amtrak envelopes. The train sat in the middle of nowhere for 45 minutes without explanation. I was traveling to an unfamiliar town on the line and the “next stop” announcements were so garbled that no one knew where we were or when we were getting where. The bar car ran out of bottled water, though the worker tried to comfort me by noting that he had just sold the last bottle.

If you’ve ever traveled on Amtrak, you know that this is not just a “I’m having a bad day” story. It is typical. Many of us lower our expectations with Amtrak, as what we want most is to just get to our destination safely. But why couldn’t the experience be better? You already have people employed there, so teach them to be nice and helpful. Get feedback from customers after the trip and try to heed their advice. Communicate often to the passengers – they like that. You don’t have to wrap the train ticket in a box and put a ribbon on it, but make passengers feel like they made a wise purchase.  Apple is a big company that gets it right – studies have shown that even if people don’t buy anything from the store, they leave with a great impression and a warm, fuzzy feeling.

Back to the boutique and the barrette. This shop made no money off me on that visit. I might have cost them money due to the expensive packaging. But I will be back and most likely spend more than $4. I will spread the word about Weezie D’s in Bronxville, NY.  And despite their lack of competition on the rails, Amtrak should not take their customers for granted. There are other ways to travel.

- Diane Schwartz

On Twitter: dianeschwartz


Peter Falk and the Art of the Interview

Some people are notoriously difficult interview subjects. They are known for being rude to journalists, and their public relations team covers for them, explaining, in not so many words, that Joe or Sally is an extremely busy person and you’re lucky to get them on the phone at all.

And sometimes the journalist isn’t forewarned—he or she walks into an interview with a rude person blindly, and gets off the phone feeling just plain bad.

This happened to me recently. Without going into details, my interview subject could barely feign interest in the conversation, expressed impatience, gave brief answers and had the energy level of Perry Como in a tryptophan daze. Perhaps he was having a bad day—we all have those. But as any media trainer might say, it’s on your bad days that it’s most important to be on guard for rude behavior during interviews.

Which leads me to Peter Falk, who recently passed away. About 10 years ago I interviewed him by phone for an article I was writing. I was amazed then—and was amazed the other day as I reread my transcript—at how open and friendly he was. This was Columbo, for God’s sake, and he was more than happy to discuss, at length, his raincoat, his secret to happiness, Patrick McGoohan, John Cassavetes, whatever I threw at him. It didn’t matter that I was calling from a trade publication and not the New York Times. He was present and engaged, and I never forgot it.

After rereading the Falk transcript, I thought of some of the rude interview subjects I’ve spoken with. I can tell you one thing—they didn’t serve their interests well. The bad vibe comes through no matter how fair the journalist tries to be. Rudeness in interviews lingers for a long time—as does kindness.

—Steve Goldstein

A Little Research Goes a Long Way in PR

This week has been an eye opener in terms of realizing how important research is to public relations. First I read in the July-August issue of Harvard Business Review that the color pink is bad for fighting breast cancer. The research found that 33% of women who viewed breast cancer banner ads featuring pink remembered the ads, while 65% remembered ads that were gender-neutral, or not pink. That has to be a surprise to breast cancer charities who have embraced pink, but I say they’ve still done a great job creating awareness and raising funds for the cause.

Then, in a B2B case study I’ve written for the June 27 issue, research was key in a couple of ways: providing data that would help an eyeglass lense company best reach HR pros who hold the power to promote vision plans to their employees; and allowing the company to develop a calculator tool (which is driven by data) for said HR pros to use. Finally, at deadline time, Mark Weiner of PRIME Research provided me with some surprising findings for our Media Beat data feature. For the first time in two years, executive leaders are the most positive force in corporate reputation in the media (check out both articles when the issue comes out on Monday). With all of this critical research abounding, do you feel that your organization does enough research around PR initiatives or campaigns?

–Scott Van Camp

Can You Train an Employee to Be Passionate?








*That’s my one-word, arguably cynical answer.  Though my footnote elaboration is that it’s very difficult to convince an employee to be passionate about their job.  It’s like telling someone they should love a certain piece of art. Either your eyes are drawn to the art or not;  either you are passionate or you are not. At best, you will have a B-player and depending on the job that might be OK with you. But this is a major problem for any organization, as dispassionate employees suck the energy out of the room the same way a passionate employee inspires colleagues and customers.  So next time you’re hiring, ask questions that might clue you into what makes them tick, whether they’ve given 110% to a project, what volunteering activities they partake in and why. Read between the lines of the thank-you note they send post-interview.  In today’s economy, where people not machines are what separate great from good companies, it is more important than ever to identify, nurture, promote and encourage passionate people.  As for those who are not passionate but also not dispassionate, they might keep the engines running but they won’t take you as far you need to go.

What do you think – can you train an employee to be passionate?

– Diane Schwartz

Twitter:  @dianeschwartz

The Collision of Customer Relations and Public Relations

We were talking today to Paula Berg, digital media leader for Linhart PR, about how Twitter has blurred the line between customer relations and public relations. Berg, who made her name as a digital media leader at Southwest Airlines, was saying that anyone who is on the front lines of customer service with access to an organization’s Twitter account is practicing public relations, whether they’re aware of it or not.

It’s better that they be aware of it, of course. And here is where PR can really stake a claim in leading an organization’s social media strategy. Customer service reps using social media need grounding in basic PR tenets, as do face-to-face customer service reps, whose actions are a tweet away from being broadcast to the world. Customer service reps are tweeting without training in brand reputation management—a potentially terrifying situation, but also one that presents an opportunity for experienced PR pros.

It works the other way around, too—we can all do with some training in how to deal with an irate customer.

—Steve Goldstein





11 Amazingly Obvious But Overlooked Job Interviewing Tactics

The job market is tough for nearly all industries, hiring managers are time-strapped, and yet! For every great interview experience, there are 3 sub-par encounters that are usually the result of poor preparation on the candidate’s part before, during and after the interview. So before you apply for the next gig (or hire your next star), consider these job interview observations and tips:

  1. Only agree to the interview if you’re truly interested in the job
  2. Look the interviewer in the eye – but don’t stare at the interviewer (there’s a difference)
  3. Come with a list of questions – and ask them at appropriate times
  4. Show your curiosity for the company and the job
  5. Smile (except when discussing your crisis management case study)
  6. Send a separate, spell-checked thank-you note via email to everyone you interviewed with, despite their job title, and in that note include some ideas on what you would bring to the job
  7. A hand-written thank-you note is fine and retro, but you still need to send an email follow-up within 24 hours
  8. Don’t ramble –  respect the interviewer’s time constraints
  9. If the interviewer asks what your weaknesses are or what you need to improve on, always have an answer, and the answer is never “nothing” or “I can’t think of anything”
  10. Regardless of the position, you are on a sales call – sell your best attributes (bonus: acknowledge a few mistakes that strengthened your skills)
  11. If the interviewer is not selling you on the company and the job, it is likely you will not be called back

Do you have some tips and experiences to add? Please share!

- Diane Schwartz

Join Me On Twitter: @dianeschwartz

How to Lose Credibility in Social Media the Easy Way

Social media has made communication a little too easy, too fast, too dangerous. No, I’m not talking about inappropriate tweets and Facebook posts. I’m referring to the ease with which we can make honest mistakes in what we write in tweets and posts—typos and dropped words, for instance—and to the frequent absence of fact-checking.

One of the most common errors in judgment I’ve seen with PR professionals and journalists alike is the assumption of knowledge.

A common mental refrain: “Fact-check the congressman’s name? I don’t have to do that. I’m a veteran journalist.”

Another one: “Fact-check my client’s company name? They’ve been around for nearly a century. Everybody knows how to spell it.”

If you make a mistake in a Facebook post, you’ll hear about it instantly, and your credibility will suffer a (hopefully temporary) ding. And if you write the name “Andrew Weiner” in a tweet instead of “Anthony Weiner,” trying to chase that down and remove it from the twittersphere will be like trying to chase one’s toupee in a wind tunnel in March. It’s gone, real gone.

So my advice to you—and to myself—is to take it slow on social media. Think about what you’re writing, look it over and consider it engraving, not posting.

—Steve Goldstein



Asking for It: Sage Advice for College Grads & Communicators Advancing to Next Level

It’s the month of commencement speeches, with high school and college graduates treated to time-tested advice from their elders and applying what is retainable and relatable to their own lives (after the parties and summer jobs).

Wouldn’t it be fun if every year we had a Moving Up Ceremony of sorts for our profession? We’d all gather for a few hours to hear from the valedictorian of our industry who will remind of us how tough it’s been but why we should stick with it. Then we’re treated to a speaker “from the outside” who can impart entertaining but useful advice as we budget for next year, launch new campaigns and take on new responsibilities? As you ponder who those keynotes might be (You? Your boss? Ashton Kutcher?), you’d find that just reading or listening to the speeches being given at college graduations nationwide offer great advice and tips for us, “the elders”.

Some advice is surely evergreen — and it’s validating to be reminded of it as we “refresh” our minds, take much-needed vacations, and rethink our communications plans and work/life issues for the rest of the year and beyond.

So, does this advice from college graduation speakers this year, aggregated from the New York Times this past weekend (and with a little editorializing by yours truly), sound familiar?:

“You’ve got to be all in…No more than a surgeon can operate while tweeting canyou reach your potential with one ear in, one ear out.” (Read: stay focused, don’t let multi-tasking take over your life). — Samatha Power of the National Security Council

“Don’t be afraid of new ideas; be afraid of old ones.” (Read: be creative, fear complacency.) – Daniel F Akerson, CEO, General Motors

“Honest failure is a badge of experience….Being afraid to fail means you’ll be afraid to try.” (Read: fail fast and move on) – Steve Blank, technology entrepreneur

“Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision.” (Don’t rush to make decisions about your life and career) – Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook

Joseph Plumeri, CEO of Willis Group Holdings, told the graduates of the College of William & Mary a story about the renaming of the Sears Tower in Chicago to the Willis Tower. Despite resistance and people saying the name can’t be touched despite Sears having vacated the building back in 1993, Plumeri persisted. When Brian Williams asked him during an interview how he got the building owners to change the name, he told Williams: “I asked.”

Sometimes, you just have to ask.

– Diane Schwartz

On Twitter: @dianeschwartz



Building Great Teams: Control Freaks Need Not Apply

In the 6/13 issue of PR News, Mike McDougall, a former PR exec with Bausch + Lomb and now an independent consultant, writes about how as a communications leader, if you give up some control of your staff, it will likely empower them to greater success. Mike’s piece reminded me of two things I have recently read: one was in Inc.‘s June “Top Small Company Workplaces” issue—the story about Namasté Solar and how its employee-owned cooperative model puts workers on the same level as CEO Blake Jones. This workplace democracy is working well, although I’d say it takes mighty understanding CEO to pull it off. The other reminder was a book I recently read called Bold: How to be Brave in Business and Win (Kogan Page, 2011), by Shaun Smith and Andy Milligan. Bold ably chronicles the brand-building stories of 14 companies, most of which have leaders who really listen to their employees.

Mike really has the right idea in relinquishing control to make your team great. I’d be curious to know if there’s any PR pros out there who have already done just that.

–Scott Van Camp

Surprise! A Well-Handled Crisis

This morning I was talking to Andy Gilman, CEO of CommCore Consulting Group, about Anthony Weiner’s press conference on Tuesday. After giving me the lowdown on Weiner, Andy mentioned another interesting crisis going on—where the response has been nearly textbook: the RSA Security “SecurID” incident. Upon doing some investigating,  this tech security breach was pretty massive, but RSA appears to have handled it well.

As the story goes, back in March hackers broke into RSA’s network and stole algorithms for the company’s SecurID password tokens. These tokens provide an extra layer of password security for workers of more than 25,000 companies. A letter from the CEO posted on the RSA Web site acknowledged the breach, saying more information was to come. Then, on May 26, Lockheed Martin had to shut down it’s virtual private network after hackers got in using those RSA algorithms. Again, RSA acknowledged that the problem was serious, and initiated a replacement program. They will replace some 40 million SecurID tokens for its customers. EMC, RSA’s parent company, has taken a significant financial hit because of it, but transparency and honesty seem to be winning the day for RSA. “This is an example of a business crisis where a company acted responsibly,” says Gilman. Very refreshing, given other recent events.

–Scott Van Camp

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