I’m writing this blog post on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional, but I want to make it plain that it’s not on Amtrak’s dime. So I’m free to complain about the woman across the aisle from me on the quiet car who keeps talking on her cell phone, the stopped-up sink in the bathroom, the stifling heat and the stale air.
I mention this because the railway has succeeded recently at creating positive buzz over its new writer residency program, in which it offers writers a free round-trip ride (but no pay) as a sort of mobile writing space. The New Yorker reported that the program was inspired by a comment this past December from train-enthusiast and novelist Alexander Chee, who said that he wished Amtrak offered residencies for writers. The comment was shared among writers on Twitter, and Amtrak jumped into the fray and offered one of those writers—New York-based freelance writer Jessica Gross—its first free ride in what will soon become a formal program, based around the official hashtag #AmtrakResidency.
Amtrak is still trying to figure out the particulars of the program. Gross’ ride was just a test run, and the railway was probably not expecting such a clamor for free rides from writers. While Amtrak basks in this wave of goodwill and takes deserved credit for being so quick and clever, it might want to take seriously the question of quid pro quo raised by New Yorker writer Vauhini Vara and Poynter.org writer Al Tompkins’ comments that while it’s fine for a novelist or songwriter to accept a free ride from Amtrak, journalists should always avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
It’s all too easy for a suddenly popular promotional vehicle to turn bad, so Amtrak will have to work out clear guidelines before sending the next writer out on the rails. For instance, how will Amtrak handle it when a writer complains in a blog post about the stopped-up sink, the lack of fresh air and the blabbers in the quiet car?
Damn, it’s hot in here.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wore many hats. He was the chronicler of the Jazz Age; author of “The Great Gatsby;” a charter member of the so-called “Lost Generation” and inveterate boozer. He also coined one of the most enduring quotes: “There are no second acts in American lives.” Well, no one is perfect.
In America, second acts are a dime a dozen, and we can’t get enough of them.
To wit, Martha Stewart barely missing a beat as America’s homemaker following a five-month prison stint for insider trading; Robert Downey Jr., now the embodiment of box-office mojo after spending the middle part of his career in and out drug rehab, and the ultimate second act, Richard Nixon, who was left for dead after losing the California gubernatorial race in 1962 only to be elected president six years later.
The latest second act to emerge is cooking queen Paula Deen. It was just last summer that Deen acknowledged using the “N word,” according to her deposition in a lawsuit, and other racial slurs.
Sponsors dropped her like a hot potato. The Food Network dumped her. Then she went on NBC’s TODAY Show for a weepy sit-down, where she exclaimed, “I is what I is,” and was subsequently written off for all eternity.
Now comes word of the newly formed Paula Deen Ventures, which is being funded by a reported $75 million to $100 million investment by private equity firm Najafi Cos.
Jahm Najafi, who heads the firm, told The Wall Street Journal he believes that “the Paula Deen brand is alive and well.” Sounds like a man who wants solid return on his investment. So, how long before Deen reemerges with her own show on cable or, at the very least, online?
However things shake out, the Deen saga holds important lessons for communicators whose brands may have taken a hit from which they have yet to recover or may be foundering amid myriad changes in the marketplace.
With that in mind, here are a few tips for PR pros who are grappling with how to revive their brands or organizations and win back the confidence of consumers and constituents.
> When emerging from scandal or controversy, make sure all of the company’s key players get a fat slice of humble pie. Don’t let the company pretend that the scandal never happened. Don’t harp on it, of course, but make sure that your spokespeople are prepared to answer questions from the media and other stakeholders about why it happened and what you’ve done (or are doing) to remedy it.
> Without being mawkish, try and make amends to the person or persons who may have been offended by your actions. Embrace those communities that have abandoned your brand. Don’t window-dress, but demonstrate that you won’t take any audience(s) for granted.
> Make sure your employees are in the loop regarding any changes stemming from a scandal, and can serve as brand messengers. If you don’t get buy in from the rank-and-file, it’s unlikely that consumers will believe that you are trying to do the right thing.
What would you add to the list?
Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1
Yesterday, I was driving home with a friend, and the conversation turned, as it inevitably does, to Howard Dean’s famous scream in the 2004 presidential campaign.
(Okay, it’s not really inevitable, it’s just funny to say that, and it goes to a point I’m about to make.)
And that point, to borrow from an old Douglas MacArthur phrase, is that old crises never go away.
Today, as Paula Deen launches a comeback, and as the 20-year-old allegations against Woody Allen are back in the news, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal resurfaces, that’s a fact worth addressing. For brands and their communications teams, crises are part of the permanent record. Dealing with that, though, can be tricky. It starts with the knowledge that while apologies will be demanded in the heat of the crisis—and most of the time must be offered—and forgiveness will be granted by many, mistakes are never forgotten. (In the case of Woody Allen, of course, he denies the allegations absolutely and has never apologized.)
So what to do? Here are a few essential principles.
1. Be aware that the record will include the crisis, no matter how old. This means you must plan for that inevitable resurfacing. That starts with the creation of a plan, but even more fundamentally, you need to learn from the crisis, and resolve never to repeat it. All subsequent business activities and decisions need to be made to ensure that objective. The elements of the plan, though, start with these next concepts.
2. Be open and non-defensive. You’ve acknowledged that the crisis occurred and is part of the permanent record, so there’s no point in reacting defensively if it comes back up. Don’t be emotional or angry. Don’t be indignant. If appropriate, use humor, as Howard Dean does when asked about his scream. And outline how you’ve learned and changed.
3. Have testimonials lined up. One of the best ways to reassure stakeholders when an old crisis crops back up is to have credible testimonials from well-selected supporters. It may be that you won’t want to directly address an old crisis, or respond to those who are reviving it. But having others speak for you can be very effective.
4. Deliver on your word. This is the most important. If an old crisis resurfaces, the most eloquent response you can make is to have a record in the intervening time that demonstrates that you didn’t just apologize and promise to make adjustments to get past the crisis. If you have years of a flawless track record, then that will be very persuasive in the court of public opinion.
There are three types of PR professionals: ineffective, good and great. It’s as simple as that, really. Most PR pros are good – they’ve found a comfortable place to practice their trade and are making an impact with their organization or clients. But Public Relations cannot afford to be a majority of Good professionals if it wants to lead the charge in moving markets and reputations.
Going from Good to Great takes work and new habits. Fortunately, habits are hard to break – so if you can acquire these 9 Habits of Highly Effective PR People, then you’ll no longer settle for Good. Based on conversations with PR professionals and our PR News team’s interviews with thousands of leaders, here are nine great PR habits:
1. Listen hard: don’t pretend you’re listening. Focus during key conversations and jot down what you heard, because you think you’ll remember the key takeaways but you won’t.
2. Speak the local language: understand the lingo of the communities and markets you serve and learn their language. The nuances can make a difference in your communications campaign.
3. Read until your eyes hurt: Always be reading something – be it a magazine article, a news item online, a fiction or non-fiction book. Reading stirs your imagination, helps you to become a better writer, and, of course, keeps you well-informed.
4. Embrace measurement: you’ve heard that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. It’s true. Sometimes it’s tough to swallow the results, much less communicate them. Establishing reasonable metrics and evaluating regularly will allow you to pivot, improve, learn and succeed.
5. Become a subject matter expert: Being a Jack (or Jackie) of All Trades is over-rated. Find a niche, study it, live it and become the go-to expert on that niche.
6. Practice your math: Knowing how to read a Profit/Loss statement, how to build and execute on a budget, how to calculate growth and decline will position you for leadership, and improve your PR initiatives.
7. Hone your writing skills: whether it’s a finely crafted memo, a post-campaign report or an email to a colleague or client, make your writing sing. How you write is often how you’re perceived in the field of communications. If you can’t articulate your message in writing, you can’t go from Good to Great.
8. Master your Social: Social media is not a strategy, it’s a platform. Understand it and use it regularly but don’t let Fear of Missing Out make you an obsessive social communicator. The other “social” — communicating and networking with peers and stakeholders (preferably in person or by phone) — holds more long-term value for you as a PR leader.
9. Be a PR advocate: Public Relations often suffers from an image problem; PR is not just about pitching to the media or bitching about the media; it’s one of the most important disciplines within an organization. Advocate for your profession – and the best way to do that is by being a Great PR Person.
I might have missed a few habits, so please add to this list!
- Diane Schwartz
One of the more intriguing facets of the 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer concerns the credibility of spokespeople for companies and organizations. The trend lines bear watching for PR executives and communicators looking to both personalize the face of their brand and improve employee relations
The 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer online survey sampled 27,000 general population respondents with an oversample of 6,000 informed publics ages 25-64 across 27 countries.
The most trusted sources of information remain people whose access may depend on what kind of relationship they have with your company: Academics and experts. They’re the most trusted sources this year (67%), up from five points from 2009, followed by technical experts, according to Edelman.
But here’s where things get interesting: After technical experts the most trusted source of information is what Edelman defines as a “person like yourself,” (62%), which grew 15 percentage points since 2009.
Little wonder that regular folks have gotten more credible as spokespeople during the same period that social media, which abhors hierarchy, has gone mainstream.
Delivering an organization’s message used to be a fairly straightforward exercise. Have the CEO or chief spokesperson share the information, regardless of the what kind of credibility that person has with stakeholders or whether he or she is media savvy. So long as that person got a bio in the first few pages of the company’s annual report.
Not in a Twitter age, though. Now, your most credible spokespeople are hiding in plain sight.
As information becomes democratized so, too, does the credibility of “regular” employees who can carry a message and, at the same time, attain consumers’ trust for the long haul.
The most trusted sources of information increasingly are the rank and file, folks who don’t have an axe to grind, and can inspire trust because when they explain a product, service or idea they’re sincere about it and unscripted.
The Edelman survey also found significant gains for regular employees, to 52% in 2014 from 32% in 2009, as the most credible spokespeople.
The credibility of CEOs grew to 43% in 2014, from 31% in 2009, but is still near the bottom rung.
That CEOs have some of the least credibility as spokespeople is not exactly earth shattering, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
It’s the rising credibility of a person like yourself and regular employees that’s likely to have a bigger impact on your communications strategy.
Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1