Should You Put Your Customers Second?

It’s a mantra so often used that we don’t think twice about it:  the customer is always right.  However, most us would agree that it’s OK to gently let go of customers/clients who are eating up time, energy and resources and at the end of the day don’t contribute much to your bottom line. You could argue the same with employees, but the latter just may be the result of your putting your customers first.

Flipping the notion on its head that customers should be your number-1 priority, there have been dozens of books and hundreds of speeches that make a very strong point that if your employees are not feeling the love, getting trained and mentored, and  if morale is low and turnover high, then there’s a trickle-down effect – dripping right down to your customers and financials.  There are hundreds of case studies of companies that tie high employee satisfaction to increased sales. What most companies don’t agree on is what it means to put your employees first.  Does it mean that employees should be happy at work or happy to work? To whistle while they work or not complain about long hours?  It gets messy when you have to define what Employees First means.

In previous blogs, I have pointed to one word that, in my opinion, is the most important employee attribute and the more you have of it, the more successful your organization will be: Passion.  It’s hard to see it in the hiring process and difficult to teach, but when an employee has passion, it’s magical.

How you stoke employee passions in your corporate culture should be a never-ending focus for anyone in a leadership role.  But putting your customers second can be dangerous, so tread lightly.  Employee and customer satisfaction are like water and air: we need both to survive.  Customers and employees are inextricably linked.  There’s only one thing better than a passionate customer:  the employees who serve that customer.

- Diane Schwartz

Twitter: @dianeschwartz

Social Media Overload? Focus on Your Audience, Not the Tools

During Internet Week in New York, I attended a presentation that drove home the point that communicators are overloaded with social media options and sinking under the weight of an endless flow of data. Up on the video screen a chart displayed dozens of interconnected logos—each one representing a hot, formerly hot and soon-to-be-hot digital channel.

“Does this represent your typical workday and the choices you have to make?” the speaker asked.

You could feel the air leave the room—not that there was much to begin with on that muggy New York evening—and sense people slumping in their chairs. Yes, it did represent their typical workday.

It’s all too much, sometimes: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Google+, LinkedIn, YouTube, Tumblr—and whatever else is next—on top of more quaint but still necessary channels like email, news releases and Web sites. How can a PR professional manage it all and show proof that the time invested in each platform is paying off on the bottom line?

One solution is to first admit to yourself that you can’t possibly do it all and to work with an outside agency that can help you manage your social engagement programs. Such an agency can provide you with the data you need to figure out what’s working, what isn’t and what to report to senior leaders in your organization. By doing so you can spend more time being creative with your overall communications strategies and less time jumping from browser window to browser window, app to app—racing, racing, racing to monitor comments and pin, tweet, post, shoot, edit and wade through mountains and mountains of data.

Working with outside experts isn’t always an option, though. As we’ve heard from top digital communicators—some of whom will be leading sessions at PR News’ June 21-22 Social Media Summit in New York—focusing less on the various modes of communication and more on the proclivities of your target audience will help you learn where to spend your time and energy. Maybe your audience has drifted to Pinterest and maybe you’ve been sitting on a storehouse of images that they will want to repin. Maybe immersing yourself in Twitter is all that’s necessary at the moment. Go where they live online, and commit to the process of finding your own voice.

And when that next, hot platform launches, remind yourself that you have no power to halt technology’s march and that you can’t possibly do it all. And then tell yourself that you can do some things very, very well.

—Steve Goldstein

Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI 

‘Brown Shorts’ and Hiring for Attitude: Question Your Questions

Look around you (assuming you are in the office). Those employees who’ve been at your organization less than two years? About half of them will fail at their jobs. What’s more surprising is by “fail” I don’t mean they’ll leave or be let go. Most of them will stay. And many – if not most – of them will be highly skilled. In fact, their resume matches their skill set.  So what’s so bad about them, you may ask.  In a word, Attitude. If you need to visualize it: click here to see someone you don’t want on your team. They are such a bad fit, says Mark Murphy, author of Hiring for Attitude and head of the training institute Leadership IQ, that you might implement a more aggressive telecommuting strategy so you never have to be in the same room with them.

Murphy spoke this week at a publishing industry conference in Washington, DC, about the mistakes we make when interviewing candidates – the poor questions that lead to weak hires.  He offered up the “Brown Shorts” story in which, according to Murphy, Southwest would bring in a group of pilots who were applying for a job there, and hand them brown shorts with the option of putting them on or not. Picture a room full of men in starchy white shirts, a black jacket, nicely pressed slacks, knee high socks and spit-clean loafers.  Less than half would go into the dressing room to change into the brown shorts. The others who didn’t? According to Murphy, they were told a variation of: “Thanks, you can leave now.”   Southwest was having some fun with these job candidates because, as those who read PR News knows, Southwest’s culture is one of fun, of out-of-the-box thinking and doing. Their PR News-award-winning blog is called Nuts about Southwest. And if you’re “nuts about Southwest” you’d put on those brown shorts.

Murphy asked the audience what their organization’s “Brown Shorts” are.  Not to be taken literally. Is yours  a culture of creativity and juggling a lot of balls in the air? Is yours a culture of quiet, where everyone sticks to their space and the best sound is one of a pin dropping? Do you hate mistakes? Or embrace them? Do you favor a noisy office, with celebrations in the meeting room and very casual Fridays?  As you think about this, don’t revert to your Brown Shorts being about Teamwork or Collaboration or High Standards.  Surely you want that kind of culture, but is that how you define yourselves? How you are differentiated from your competitors? Who doesn’t want a job candidate who enjoys collaboration and high standards? Is willing to work late to get the job done? Some candidates are such great interviewers that in retrospect you feel the fool for hiring them  (admit it.)  But if you know what your “Brown Shorts” are, you would throw out the canned questions and focus on the few that really matter.

It’s easy to hire for skills: I agree with Murphy on this.  It’s very difficult to hire for Attitude.  Not for any attitude but for the attitude that matches your “Brown Shorts”.   So we need to figure out what our Brown Shorts are within our company or department and make sure we ask the questions that get us to the true answers of whether that candidate is a good fit for you and your team.  You can even extend the Brown Shorts test to business partners and clients.

Murphy suggests trying out your interview questions on your best employees and see how they answer them.  And for giggles (and some insights), try out those same questions on your worst employees.

In his research, Murphy said nearly 90% of the hiring managers saw signs during the interview that they shouldn’t hire this person. And yet.  Whether that’s 20/20 hindsight or not, there’s also something to be said about going with your gut.  I suggest this hiring formula of: Your Gut + Brown Shorts Questions will equal an A-Player.

-   Diane Schwartz

On Twitter: @dianeschwartz

The Dangerous Influence of Teflon Brands

Are some brands made out of Teflon? Are they so beloved that they are beyond the reach of reputation-bruising crises and bad behavior by top executives?

Apple’s supply chain in China was exposed by the New York Times, but did that put a dent in iPhone sales? Wal-Mart’s systematic payment of bribes to officials in Mexico and its cover-up made headlines, but do its dedicated shoppers really care? New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella treats the media like pesky gnats, but has that affected sales of Molson beer at Madison Square Garden?

When a brand’s connection to its audience is so strong that it can survive nearly anything—like cockroaches after nuclear devastation—it sends a dangerous message to mere mortal brands. “Look at Wal-Mart!,” a CEO of a midsize company might say. “They tried to bury their own investigation in Mexico and I still can’t find a decent parking spot on a Saturday at my local branch. Why am I paying for my PR team? I’m going to live like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. No one cares!”

The answer to the CEO’s question: “You’re not Wal-Mart. You’re not even Ralph’s Italian Ices. And you’re definitely not Bill Murray. We’ve got 15 competitors in a tight market who do what we do, so quit with the drunken tweets from your corner sports bar.”

Teflon brands are like movie stars who try to give the impression on talk shows that they are just like us regular people. The rules that apply to 99% of American companies don’t necessarily apply to Apple, Wal-Mart and the New York Rangers. And if you’re a communicator in the 99%, the value of your work should not be diminished, not matter how many times Coach Tortorella says to a reporter “you’re not gonna get the answer.”

—Steve Goldstein

Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI 

One-Size-Fits-All Is Wearing Thin With Our Stakeholders

Are you platform agnostic or platform committed? Perhaps you hadn’t asked yourself that question before, but I implore you and your team to really think about this as you race to capture audience engagement and action. NBC Universal’s Chief Digital Officer and former NY Times and NPR exec  Vivian Schiller, during Internet Week at the Digiday conference in NYC, spoke about how content is consumed and delivered, and noted that she really hates the term “platform agnostic.” It sounds so smart, doesn’t it: “platform agnostic”? We all got on the bandwagon and pledged to not play favorites with our platforms – we would deliver content to our readers anyway, anywhere , 24/7.  We’d be agnostic!

But somewhere along the way, many of us – whether you deliver news, analysis, marketing content  – tripped up. We started putting our content on mobile and it looked just like our Web site; we started posting video for video’s sake and hoped it would be deemed an artistic production.  We delivered email newsletters that read just like the Web site content.  Further, many of us didn’t even go there. We skipped right over the various screens (mobile, video, etc) and jumped right into social media with fevered agnosticism.

“Are we platform-committed?” asked Schiller?  I love this question and the challenge it presents during this dynamic time in digital communications. Put another way, are we committed to delivering our messages, our information and news to fit the unique attributes of the platform? Do we spend time understanding how our audiences consume information and what they’d want from us on an app vs a mobile site vs a Web site? Are we even present in their lives when they’re on their smartphone or tablet?

With so many platforms to manage, do we resort to “writing once” with social media – sending that tweet across our Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+  platforms or do we tailor the content to the mood and rhythms of that platform? It takes more time and thought (and resources), but that is what our audiences expect of us.  It’s time to start taking sides and creating digital experiences that give our stakeholders something to believe in.

– Diane Schwartz

On Twitter: @dianeschwartz

Watch the Padding

In a recent piece for PR News, PR Insider columnist Andrew Hindes offers tips on how to write a good, and truthful, professional bio. Andrew, who heads The In-House Writer, a PR and marketing copywriting firm, has become our resident expert on writing press releases, e-mail subject lines and other nuts-and-bolts essentials in the PR pro’s toolbox. One of the tips he offers about writing professional bios: “A bio should never include fabricated accomplishments, awards, titles or positions. Besides the obvious moral issue, false claims are easy to disprove in the digital age and the potential fallout from getting caught in a lie far outweighs any benefits of exaggerating one’s achievements.”

Andrew had discussed writing this piece with me before the story broke widely about Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson including in his resume a degree in computer science that he did not actually earn, so he wasn’t jumping on any bandwagon with this article idea. His tip about not lying in a professional bio was just one among nine, but it’s the one that really jumps out at you now.

As a PR pro, you have to take some things on faith, right? If the CEO sends down a bio for you to post on a site or include in an annual report, who are you to question the details? You’re lucky your budget is remaining intact for the coming year, so why make waves?

Perhaps. But then there’s the issue of your own reputation, which will follow you to your next job. You owe it to yourself, your organization and your senior leaders to fact-check everything, and then let the chips fall where they may.

—Steve Goldstein

Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI 

3 Themes at Counselors Academy: Relationships, Inspiration, Profitability

Since I became editor of PR News about two-and-a-half years ago, I’ve heard a lot of good things from agency folks about the PRSA Counselors Academy Conference.  This week I finally went. As a first-timer at the Spring Conference in New Orleans, I learned many new things about the agency side of public relations, and was able to get a renewed sense of who the agency leaders are and what is on their minds. If I could sum up the prevailing mantra of the conference, it would be, “PR is a creative profession, but it’s still a business.” Here are some other observations on PR agency leaders and the “big ticket” issues they face:

Genuine Camaraderie: While many of the agencies represented here might be in competition with each other for business, there’s a strong sense among leadership of “we’re in this together.” Thus there was no hesitation to share best practices among agency peers. “We all help each other,” says Martin Waxman of Martin Waxman Communications and 2012 conference chair.

Entrepreneurial Spirit: Since many PR pros at the conference started their own agencies, they have very interesting and inspirational stories to tell. On May 7, Elise Mitchell, president and CEO of Mitchell Communications, chronicled her inspirational journey as an agency leader, likening it to a winding motorcycle ride (her personal passion). Her message of “uncertainty can mean great opportunity” clearly resonated with the audience.

Client Relationships Are Paramount: Not surprisingly, agencies put client relationships first. Yet it was said more than once that too much client care can hurt the bottom line. More than ever, agencies are getting inside clients’ heads, taking stock of the customer-centric companies like Zappos and beginning to apply similar best practices to their client relationships.

Employee Communications Are Key: Agency owners have a lot of worries, and one of the biggest is their staffs. Training, morale and work-life balance were all topics of conversation, with the prevailing question being, “How can I best enable my staff to succeed?” Because with their success comes business success.

It Is a Business: To compete with “the big dogs,” as Peppercom managing partner Steve Cody put it, midsize and smaller agencies must distinguish themselves through unique offerings, like  mobile communications services and expanded digital/social footprints.  Peppercom offers Comedy Experience workshops and launched Audience Experience, a new service to help companies better design their communications and marketing.

Yet with more of these offerings comes a need for improved business acumen. The end goal of achieving profitably was a repeating theme.  On that end, Rick Gould, managing partner at StevensGouldPincus, said 2011 agency revenues being tabulated for his company’s annual Best Practices Benchmarking study are coming in on the high side, which bodes well for the future of agencies.

—Scott Van Camp

Follow Scott Van Camp: @svancamp01

What PR Can Learn From ‘The Avengers’ and How to Spot a Superhero

You saw this blog post coming, right? As a communicator, you can’t ignore the major “event” that is “The Avengers” and will, if asked, find a newsworthy connection with your own product, company or, in my case, this blog. After all, “The Avengers” blew box office records so there’s no way you can get through this week without an Avengers-like analogy or discussion. Hopefully you’ve seen the movie, but even if you haven’t you know that good beats evil and that you can’t win a big battle without the help of your peers.  Short of declaring “there’s no “I” in teamwork, The Avengers’ underlying theme is that a battle is best won by putting together a team of superheroes whose best attributes are complemented and ignited by working as one.

Should a crisis or heated situation erupt in your company, who are the superheroes on your team? It’s time to start pinpointing them so you can be prepared for the next battle.

How to identify your own Avengers:

* Iron Man: this is the creative guy or gal who is a self-described genius, but you have to admit – he makes cool stuff, so you need to tolerate his pompousness. He will deliver.

* Captain America:  selfless, lonely and strong (and a bit outdated in his fashion sense), he’s still a loyal soldier and you can’t go to battle without his strength.  Forget the fact that he and Iron Man seem to loathe each other; they don’t need to be best friends to be effective team members.

* Hulk: he’s the loose cannon on your team, and everyone fears he’ll lose his cool. But he’s the finisher and you know it.  A little unpredictability can help your campaign. You might not want to bring him to all your meetings.

* Thor: an all-around good guy, a bit idealistic but the key is that he (or she) holds the essential connection to the bad guy/competition (see Loki, below).  You need a connector on your team.

* Hawkeye:  he’s the team member with a particular and essential skill set who will go to battle for you and over-deliver. You rely on him to pinpoint the competition and hit ‘em where it hurts.

* Black Widow: an intelligent, savvy fighter without real superpowers, she’s your ninja. She’s reliable and perhaps because of her gender, at first she’s underestimated by her peers and competitors.

* Loki:  you don’t want him on your team; most likely he’s the guy you’re battling – he’s jealous and vengeful and demands but does not command respect.

* Nick Fury: the group manager, he or she has the foresight to bring this motley crew together and keep them focused on the important fight. Tough as nails with the courage of his conviction; he’s the tough middle man between the team and the board/owners.  The eye patch is optional, but only wear it if you truly need it.

Like “The Avengers” movie itself, your team of superheroes should live up to its hype.  And if you succeed, your team might expect a better comp package and possibly be recruited by your enemies.  That should not scare you away.

- Diane Schwartz

On Twitter: @dianeschwartz


Fly Spirit and Save the CEO’s Job

Was Spirit Airlines on your radar a couple weeks ago? It wasn’t on mine—I don’t think I ever booked a flight with them. Now it’s the airline I’m not supposed to fly. Ever.

On April 22, the Tampa Bay Times reported that Spirit refused to refund the price of a ticket to Jerry Meekins, a Vietnam vet suffering from esophageal cancer, who learned after booking a flight that he had only a couple months to live and wouldn’t be able to fly because of his compromised immune system. Meekins had purchased a $197 nonrefundable ticket, and despite his condition, no exception would be made in his case, he was told by Spirit. Then comes the kicker: Exceptions are made when the person who is to fly dies before the date of the flight, if a death certificate can be produced.

Meekins told the Tampa Bay Times that Spirit’s response is “un-American,” and you know what that led to—unremitting coverage from Fox News.

Calling for a boycott of Spirit on Facebook was inevitable. Mashable reported that a “Boycott Spirit Airlines” page that launched in 2010 and which had 700 likes earlier this week has been the proverbial flame for the social media moths; the page had 37,000 likes as of late afternoon on May 4.

In an interview with published on May 3, Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza said that Meekins gave up the right to a refund when he chose not to purchase travel insurance, and that Spirit would not make an exception in his case. He also told that Spirit’s industry-leading rate of customer complaints is an “irrelevant statistic,” and focused instead on the many customers who don’t complain and who care more about the cheap flights the highly profitable airline offers than about its customer service. You sort of get the feeling the Spirit PR team doesn’t have a seat at the so-called executive table.

Emphasizing value and dismissing customer service has been a successful strategy for Spirit—until now. Profit rules, yes. But paying customers can turn on a company on a dime, en masse, nowadays. And when that happens, there go the profits.

As of 4:47 p.m., May 4, Baldanza is still CEO of Spirit Airlines. Check this space next week.

UPDATE: Late on May 4, reported that Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza will personally refund Meekins’ $197 airfare. In addition, Spirit will make a $5,000 donation to the Wounded Warrior Project.

—Steve Goldstein

Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI 

Seau’s Death May Put a Dent in NFL’s Popularity

It’s safe to say that the NFL has never been more popular than it is today. The last three Super Bowls were the most-watched TV shows in U.S. history; regular-season games accounted for 23 of the 25 most-watched telecasts last fall; and team revenues have never been higher.

Not even the concussion stories of the last several years can puncture the NFL’s Teflon image, said Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports, in an interview in February 2012. Well, three months later, Pilson’s concussion contention may not be accurate, as the nation mourns the apparent suicide of popular ex-NFL star Junior Seau.

Seau, who played linebacker in the league for 20 years (an amazing stat since the average time as a player in the NFL is six years, if you believe the league, and three years if you believe the player’s union), surely suffered many damaging blows to the head. And now the media is wondering if Seau’s suicide was caused by depression related to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease found in other former pros who have died.

So far, the NFL has been understandably mum on any link between Seau’s death and the concussion problem. Commissioner Roger Goodell issued a statement of condolence stating: “All of us are deeply saddened about Junior Seau, a great player loved by teammates who also worked hard to serve his community.”

But you can bet communications pros at the league are huddling to figure out how to best handle the onslaught of concussion stories that are sure to come. Sure enough, today another group of former players filed a lawsuit claiming the NFL did not inform them about the dangers they faced from concussions sustained in the sport. Also, USA Today reported that CTE researchers at Boston University asked the Seau family for permission to study Seau’s brain.

Seau was not only a beloved player for his on-the-field exploits, but well-known for his community efforts as well. If that examination takes place and the the findings are positive for CTE, the public’s reaction could put at least a dent in the NFL’s Teflon image.

Follow Scott Van Camp: @svancamp01

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