How to Take Public Relations a Notch or Two ‘Furthur’

The Grateful Dead, the Grandaddy of jam-band music, called it quits in 1995 soon after the death of lead guitarist (and first among equals) Jerry Garcia. The Dead’s 30-year run, which included nearly 2,300 concerts and a unique musical styling best described as “electric Dixieland,” is safely ensconced in the annals of Rock and roll history.


But the Dead’s legacy carries on through Furthur, which was founded in 2009 by Dead frontmen Bob Weir and Phil Lesh. Similar to the Dead—a pioneer in “social marketing”  before the term existed—Furthur offers PR and marketing execs a string of lessons on how to sustain your audience and grow your brand.

As I traveled up and down the Northeast corridor in the last two weeks to catch a couple of Furthur shows during its spring tour, I thought about what communicators could learn from the band:

> Respect your audience: Furthur communicates strictly through its music. Aside from Weir or Lesh saying, “We’re going to take a short break,” at the end of the first set or “Good night,” after the encore, the band doesn’t kibitz with the audience but provides them with three-plus hour of music, which is what people actually paid for. Regardless of your market, don’t distract your audience with peripheral and/or disposable information, but the content that means the most to people.

> Don’t repeat the same content over and over: While most musical artists have a cookie-cutter approach to their concerts (same set lists, same notes and even the same guitar solos in the same slot), Furthur never performs the same show twice. The band is constantly adding (and subtracting) to its song repertoire and developing new musical arrangements, which keep fans guessing. Indeed, to keep your fans engaged don’t rely on the same material but find new PR vehicles to keep your overall message fresh (without having to reinvent the wheel).

> Use your company’s operation as a vehicle for charitable efforts:  At every show and just before the encore Phil Lesh makes an impassioned plea for people to become organ donors; in 1998 Lesh underwent a liver transplant as a result of chronic hepatitis C infection. Lesh’s donor crusade is a reminder for brands that, in order for their charitable effort to truly resonate with audiences, the effort has to hit close to home and provide a personal connection to the chairman, CEO or company founder, for example. This way, the effort comes off as the real deal and not something the company is doing just for the sake of doing so.

> Nurture the newbies:  Along with Lesh and Weir, Furthur includes drummer Joe Russo and lead guitarist John Kadlecik, who are considerably younger than Lesh and Weir. While Lesh and Weir ultimately call the shots onstage, Russo and Kadlecik are given a wide berth for musical improvisation and exploration. That’s something that should hardly be lost on grizzled PR veterans: Hire younger people who love your brand and are comfortable with your corporate culture, but not so comfortable that they fail to bring new ideas to the table and alternative ways of cultivating your audience, er, fans.

What do you think your favorite band can teach us about PR?

Follow Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1

Questions All PR People Must Be Asking

Oscar Wilde once said that the “question often arrives a terribly long time after the answer.”  For sure, asking the right questions early and often is the answer to a lot of problems we face as communicators.  Inundated with projects, challenges, crises, pitches and meetings, we are easily seduced by the sirens of Completion: get it done, no tough questions asked.  Throughout your week, you are inherently set up to ask tough questions. How often do you ask the right ones, however difficult the answers might be?

Below, I’ve started a list of key topics and questions to ask in your PR life. Please add to it – what do you have to lose?

* A PR Campaign: Can it be measured and what will the key performance indicators be?

* Interviewing your Next PR Star:  What’s your best mistake and why?

* Choosing a PR Firm: Whom will I be working with day to day and what’s his/her experience?

* Choosing a Client: Are their expectations realistic and will we click on a human level?

* Forging a Nonprofit/Charitable Partnership: Does this organization align with my company’s goals and do we have time for this?

* Your Team: Whom can I recognize today for a job a well done?

* Your Customers: How can I “wow” them this week?

* Pushing a Viewpoint: Is it really worth pursuing?

* Managing a Crisis: Who is affected by this crisis, and what’s the worst that could happen?

* Social Media: Do we really need to be on this platform? If yes, why? If not, let’s not waste precious time.

* The Media: What great story do I have to tell and why should they care?

I look forward to your contributions to this list!

- Diane Schwartz








Kill Your Brand (For a Few Minutes)

The death of your brand: have you ever thought about it? Have you considered the implications of its demise, for better or worse? What might be lost in the marketplace of ideas, products or services if your brand no longer existed?

Excuse my pessimism, but it might be time to think about your brand’s vanishing act.

We often hold post-mortems on projects, events or campaigns to determine what went right and wrong. Then we go back to our desks, the criticisms and accolades tucked into a corner of our brain for use next time around. We may also discuss the “banana peels” leading up to a campaign or event – where might we slip and how we can avoid it.  But have you ever brought your team and customers together and asked them this question: If our brand no longer existed, what would you miss most?

Go ahead: envision the death of your brand, or, worse yet, of your company or agency. Imagine its non-existence.

Would customers revolt? Would they be screaming on social media in a Veronica Mars/Arrested Development sort of way to bring your brand back? If you’re a PR firm, would your clients’ reputations go downhill fast and would their own companies hit a wall because your firm is no longer counseling them?

Would customers send you letters begging for you to bring the brand or product back to the marketplace? Do they need your product so much that without it they are a wreck, either emotionally, physically, academically or financially?

With your product dead, would customers flock to your competitors and get on with life just fine?

Would there be a deafening silence: no one complaining, no one missing the uniqueness of your brand? Worse yet, no one even noticed you were gone until they read the obituary?

Before you make the next move with your brand, have your employees and customers fill in the blank: If this brand went away, I would _____________.

How they fill in the blank may be the key to your survival.

- Diane Schwartz

Five PR Lessons From ‘The Voice’

Why are so many of us addicted to “The Voice”? For me, it’s not because I am constantly reminded of what a poor singer I am.  I have my kids to remind me of that. Why I like “The Voice” over other reality shows has more to do with the mix of great singers, charismatic judges and weekly lessons in finding something nice to say over and over to countless strangers.

At PR News, we find there’s a PR angle to every story, to every brand, to every situation. In the case of “The Voice,” I want to share a few take-aways for anyone who spends their day in communications and management.

Listen.  Sometimes you need to remove your sense of vision and all the biases that come with it. You just might look at someone differently and hear something you never expected.  While I don’t recommend turning your chair around in a meeting and closing your eyes, a keen focus on listening will help you hear a message loud and a clear.

Diversify. When putting together a team, mix it up. “The Voice” judges choose a wide array of talented contestants for their teams; Blake isn’t choosing all country singers and Usher isn’t picking all hip-hop singers.  They are looking for that X factor, for people with potential and by choosing a diverse group of singers they are hedging their bets.

Encourage.  Notice how the judges are so darn nice to every contestant. They find something encouraging to say to those who aren’t chosen this time – in normal parlance known as “losers”.  The judges don’t criticize.  They implore the contestants to work on one or two weaknesses and invite them to try again.

Laugh.  When there’s chemistry among a small team – such as with Shakira, Adam, Usher and Blake – laughter ensues. Take time to find the humor in your day. Something has to be funny.

Be Real. There’s one aspect of “The Voice” and with many reality shows that irk me and possibly you too: the supposed live tweets as we’re watching the show. You’d have to be a fool to believe there isn’t a ghost tweeter for each of the judges. The second a contestant wins or loses, we see a tweet from the judges as if they are telepathically sending a message to their iphone to tweet a sentiment. C’mon, we’re smarter than that (right?).  When you like a brand as much as I like “The Voice” and you feel the judges are otherwise authentic, the fake tweets can sour the experience.  Just show the viewers’ tweets on the screen – after all, we need a voice too.

- Diane Schwartz







We’re All Geeks Now

Welcome to the Yottabyte Era.

Yottabyte, which is equal to one quadrillion gigabytes, is the term to describe the next frontier of data technology. We’re now in the so-called Exabyte. Before that we had Terabyte and Petabyte eras.

However you define the amount of data that’s at the disposal of PR and marketing professionals, the volume is mind-boggling.

“There’s no escaping the fact the velocity is ridiculous,” said Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at MIT’s Center for Digital Business, who delivered a keynote speech last week at Arthur W. Page Society’s spring meeting. “It’s not just that there’s a lot of data, and it’s not just that it’s hitting us quickly; it’s coming from a range of different sources and a lot of them are weird and new and, by our old standards, they’re kind of ragged and unpleasant to look at it.”

The speech, titled “Understanding Big Data,” underscored the growing onus on PR professionals to get a handle on the “Big Data” that is increasingly at the heart of online communications.

“The conversations around the things that we’re interested in are becoming more data-driven, certainly not overnight [and] certainly not exclusively data driven,” McAfee said to an audience of senior-level PR execs attending the meeting. “But we’re heading in this direction and I don’t see us going back the other way, simply because the truth is in the data and the tools are becoming more widespread.”

He added: “Are you and your organizations ready for this kind of change, or are you going to continue to pretend that these issues aren’t out there, and continue to operate and communicate as if you’re in a small-data world? I think that would be a very poor strategy.”

Call it the revenge of the left-brain, in which in order to succeed PR pros must increasingly adopt a “coldly logical” way of assessing information and data, possibly at the expense of more creative endeavors (right-brain).

One solution is for PR pros to develop a “geek map,” or create robust strategies for online communications and social media that stem from data, according to Suzy DeFrancis, chief public affairs officer at the American Red Cross.

“If a 130-year-old organization like the American Red Cross can jump into social data and big data, anybody can do it,” said DeFrancis, who was part of a panel discussion at the conference titled, “Putting Big Data to Work.”

DeFrancis discussed how, via its digital operations center, the American Red Cross was able to harness Big Data to inform the public (and to provide assistance) during Hurricane Sandy last October.

“This was the first disaster where we really saw the ability to put data we were acquiring from the pubic into action,” she said. “It no longer became something in the communications department, it became something that we were using for our operations.”

The challenge for PR pros is paramount: Embrace Big Data and invest in the tools that will help communicators make sense of all the content that’s informing their markets and messages. It’s an opportunity that, if Arthur W. Page Society’s spring meeting is any indication, could make or break the future prospects of public relations.

Follow Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1


Video, Rutgers and Leaders Gone Wild

At what point is it not OK for an employee to utter these words to people he’s managing:

“You f—ing fairy; you’re a f—ing f—-t.”

And at what point is it not OK to:

Shove and kick the people you’re managing?

The answer: when it’s caught on videotape. That’s when it becomes really Not OK.

Such is the most recent crisis coming out of Rutgers University, where basketball coach Mike Rice was caught on video uttering homophobic comments and physically attacking his players during practice.  Though Athletic Director Tim Pernetti and possibly others knew about both the video and his coach’s behaviors, the penalty was a 3-game suspension in December and a $50,000 fine. It wasn’t until ESPN aired the video on April 2 that the school has begun considering stiffer penalties, and today (April 3) the university fired Rice.

This is the same NJ state university at which a freshman jumped off the GW Bridge in September 2010 after his roommate videotaped sexual activities with another man in his dorm room. And the same university at which a former basketball coach had his players strip naked if they missed free throws during practice. So Rutgers is no stranger to crisis.

Should we be thankful that there are now video recorders to catch the behavior of leaders gone wild? Or should we be appalled that senior executives turned a blind eye to abhorrent actions by an employee? Yes, the coach is an employee, a term rarely used when referring to sports leaders.

Had ESPN not aired the video, would Rutgers have swept this under the rug? It appears that Rice’s boss took action back in November to help Rice (read: avoid a public crisis) by putting him in an anger management course and briefly suspending him.  But if another employee at Rutgers – let’s say the admissions officer or a dining hall manager, had uttered those damning words or kicked a colleague – most likely that officer or manager would be fired immediately.  Double-standard? Yes.

It is not surprising that the student players didn’t file formal complaints. It is not surprising – though it is disappointing from a crisis management perspective – that Rutgers officials didn’t take the story to the press before the press took the story to us. With so many players and team assistants witnessing the coach’s behavior, only a rookie would think that the story would stay on the basketball court.

– Diane Schwartz


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