3 PR Lessons from the Ice Bucket Challenge

Nearly four weeks into the phenomenon, the Ice Bucket Challenge shows no signs of letting up.

The idea of dumping cold water on one’s head to raise money for charity may be a watershed for both brands and nonprofits alike when it comes to how to raise money for charitable causes and get the word out.

The major beneficiary of the challenge has been the ALS Association. (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.)

Participants are expected to donate $10 if they have poured the water over their head and donate $100 if they have not.

People who take the challenge then challenge others to hop on board.

A veritable who’s who from the worlds of business, celebrity, and sports have joined the fray, including Jeff Bezos, Kobe Bryant, Bill Gates, LeBron James and Martha Stewart, as well as John and Jane Q. Public and kids galore.

From late July through August, the association has seen donation soar to $31.5 million, from $1.9 million during the same period last year, according to the ALS Association.

The genesis of the phenomenon is unclear, with attribution to multiple sources.

But there’s little debate that Massachusetts resident and former Boston College baseball player Pete Frates, who suffers from ALS, put the challenge on the U.S. map.

Frates, who for years has advocated on behalf of ALS, started posting about the challenge on Twitter a few weeks ago. Now it seems as if every other Facebook page on the planet features video of a person dumping cold water on his head.

A phenomenon like the Ice Bucket Challenge doesn’t come along very often. For PR managers who are closely following the campaign, it’s hard to catch lightning a bottle.

Perhaps the most salient lesson is that you can’t hatch a viral campaign in a boardroom or a series of marketing meetings in which executives are implored to think differently. Any content that takes off like wildfire is likely to be organic in nature.

Still, there are a few takeaways for communicators, with a hat tip to Michelle Mulkey, partner and corporate social responsibility practice chair at FleishmanHillard.

>  When people are raising awareness and/or funding on your organization’s behalf en masse, try and harness the interest by engaging participants at the local level. Return myriad favors by increasing engagement with community members. Throw a house party (or two) for people who have been major players in the campaign. Use those gatherings as an opportunity to spread the message and better educate the public about your mission.

> Leverage the campaign to shift people’s attention to the ongoing needs of the organization or charitable cause, whether that’s lobbying at the governmental level or communicating what else people can do to assist in the effort (beyond funding), which plays into the third tip.

> Serve as a conduit to people who want to help the cause at a granular level. Regarding the Ice Bucket Challenge, there are most likely people who met the challenge and now want to further help people and families grappling with ALS. Use all communications channels to coordinate such efforts.

What else would you add to the list?

Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1

Ferguson, Missouri: When You’ve Lost Control of the Story, and the Situation Itself

ap969996949662I’ve been riveted by the fast-moving situation in Ferguson, Missouri. It seems like an event from the sixties, a dark reflection of an ugly period long past, when cities burned and communities writhed in confrontations with law enforcement. I paid oblique attention for the first few days, but was shocked this morning (Thursday, August 14) to see that the situation hadn’t merely continued, but escalated dramatically. The footage was staggering—police firing tear gas, accosting journalists, knocking down TV cameras, advancing with military equipment on peaceful protestors.

The whole militarization of police is a story for another day, though it’s getting a lot of attention now, in many media outlets, including Vox.com and Time Magazine.

What struck me today was that in five days now, it seems like hardly anyone is moving to regain control of the situation, or the narrative.

The Ferguson police chief gave a press conference yesterday, which was something, but I had to ask: Does Ferguson even have a mayor? Does the Missouri governor care as one of his towns is in anarchy and a militarized police force is exacerbating the situation, not calming it down?

Well. There is a mayor. His name is James Knowles. I looked it up on Google. He was even on MSNBC this morning to defend the police.

But other than essentially defending the near complete absence of information, Knowles didn’t say very much. He might have answered any of these questions with some precision and with actual facts, but he didn’t.

• Who’s in charge of the police in this ongoing crisis?
• Why is basic information about the incident that precipitated this confrontation (the shooting by a police officer of an unarmed 18-year-old) being withheld?
• Is it legal to withhold the name of the police officer who did the shooting?
• Which of the several law enforcement agencies on the scene is in charge?
• Who’s the media point person?
• On whose authority are law-enforcement officers pointing machine guns at unarmed citizens?
• Does the militarized police reaction really reflect whatever threat exists?

The governor, Jay Nixon, was scheduled to make a statement later today. Which is good, I guess, but about five days late. In the meantime, Anonymous, the online hacking collective, claimed to have penetrated the Ferguson municipal computer system and gotten the name of the officer, as well as other information.

In the meantime, in the midst of the worst crisis imaginable for a small municipality (and a significant one for the state of Missouri) it’s clear there is no effective crisis management plan, and certainly no crisis communications plan, and social media is lighting up with negative reaction.

—Tony Silber
@tonysilber

6 Things to Learn From “Band of Brothers” and a Week at the Beach

band-of-brothersI have a stack of business books that I’ve either started reading or plan to start reading soon. I’m looking forward to getting into them, and I took three of them with me for a vacation last week on the beach in North Carolina.

As it turns out, I didn’t read any of my business books. Instead, I read Stephen Ambrose’s 1992 book, “Band of Brothers.” The book, for those of you who don’t know, follows the World War II journey of Easy Company, a unit of the 101st Airborne Division, which parachuted into France on D-Day. The elite unit then fought its way out of Normandy, went to Holland for the disastrous Operation Market Garden, fought at Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge, and finally was the first unit to get to Hitler’s mountain lair at the end of the war.

I felt a little guilty at first for not having gotten through my business books, but the story of these World War II soldiers was very compelling. The book refers in a few places to the “heroes” of that war and that unit, but it doesn’t sugarcoat the brutality or glorify the mass killing of other human beings.

Someone I once knew referred to business as “war without death.” He was completely serious. So with that as the connecting thread between “Band of Brothers” and PR and business, I did gain some great insights and takeaways from the book. Here are a few.

• Endurance. When you think you just can’t take it (whatever “it” is) anymore, you realize you can. When Easy Company was at Bastogne, under constant barrage from German artillery, in foxholes dug into deep snow with inadequate clothing and no heat or fire to fend off the single-digit temperatures, one man related how he had an important revelation that helped him carry on, even with trench foot and nonstop shivering. He thought his body could not take anymore, but then days (and weeks) later, he was still there, still alive, and he had learned something important about himself.
• Take good from the bad. Sometimes, the bad boss whom you (legitimately) dislike can have a very positive long-term impact. Easy Company started training in Georgia under Captain Herbert Sobel, who was universally disliked because of his pettiness and mean-spirited ways. But most of the men who survived the war would say, decades later, that Sobel’s hard-driving, relentless focus on training and fitness forged a true team of capable professionals.
• Leadership. Several times the company’s leader, Richard Winters, saved the platoon—and changed the course of a given battle—because of his counter-intuitive boldness. At Normandy, he led 15 men in an attack on a reinforced German artillery position that was blocking a causeway. He succeeded. During Operation Market Garden, he and 30 men were trapped out on a patrol after they ran into a much larger German force. Winters evaluated the situation. He concluded he could not pull back and could not stay where he was. He attacked the surprised Germans, and routed them, just when they were threatening the larger operation.
• Don’t take the easy way out. There’s a story of a patrol at Bastogne that was intended to scout German positions when it suddenly came under artillery fire, causing the men to scatter. One soldier ran past a foxhole where his comrades encouraged him to dive in. Seeing it was full, he kept going and somehow made it to his own. Later he went back to the first full foxhole and found it had taken a direct hit, leaving no survivors.
• Leaders fail often, so be prepared to take initiative. Woven through the book are accounts of junior officers and non-commissioned officers who were not suited for their roles, leading them to make terrible decisions in combat. Luckily, the defining characteristic of U.S. soldiers in that war, Stephen Ambrose wrote, was that they had the confidence and the sense of initiative to make independent decisions and avert disaster.

Resting and recharging are a good thing. Sure, I read a non-business book on my vacation, but I came back to work focused and relaxed. So enjoy your time off, and don’t do work out of a sense of obligation. You’ll be better off for it.

—Tony Silber
@tonysilber

For PR pros, ‘Disruption’ Needs to Move Beyond Just Conversation

It’s taken absolutely no time for the phrase “disrupt your brand before it gets disrupted” to turn into one of the biggest clichés in PR and marketing circles.

But it’s a cliché because it’s true.

PR pros now face a marketing world fraught with change, and if anybody tells you they know how to keep up, take it with a grain of salt.

The evidence is overwhelming. In just a few short years social media has upended decades of established PR and marketing practices and started to move to the core of business communications.

The tremendous rise of social media also has wrought tremendous change in media distribution, media consumption and, perhaps most important to PR managers, consumer behavior.

And the scary part is that it’s still early days for social media. Just wait till companies figure out how to make social media programs flow right to the bottom line.

But, when it comes to disruption, technological change is only part of the story.

Major brands and organizations are also making structural and cultural changes in their operations, which, like social channels, are likely to have a major impact on how the company communicates with customers, prospects, the media and other stakeholders.

Indeed, macro trends in the workplace demand that senior PR professionals start to think about how they can influence marked change in the business, rather than just executing new media strategies.

On Tuesday, for example, the San Antonio Spurs hired six-time WNBA all-star Becky Hammon as the NBA’s first female, regular season, full-time assistant coach. Follow this move to a logical conclusion and how long before we have the first female head coach in the NBA?

Then there’s the recent cover story in Bloomberg BusinessWeek titled, “Burger King is Run by Children.” It talks about the challenges faced by CEO Daniel Schwartz, 33, and CFO Joshua Kobza, 28, in reinventing the fast-food chain. In some enterprise companies, Schwartz and Kobza might still be working at the entry level. But at Burger King, which dates back to 1954, they’re running the joint.

Along with embracing failure as a way to fuel success, some brands and organizations are also making changes that may seem radical, but, when you peel the layers, actually reveal sound thinking about future trends in the workplace, not to mention a healthy aversion to conventional thinking.

PR pros have traditionally been the voice of the reason, telling senior executives who are not used to being second-guessed that they may not have the best idea and that the “visionary” plan that’s being bandied about may be counterproductive to the overall goals of the company.

In light of the accelerated pace of both cultural and economic changes, communicators must take their counsel to a new level.

They’ve nicely bolted on the strategic to the tactical. Now they need to incorporate the foundational, showing managers at the tippy top how secular changes in culture, business and demographics could have a profound effect on the company, its products and/or services, even thought it may not seem that way.

If you need any more evidence why companies need to rattle the cage and toss out the new-old playbook, just check out the Fortune 500 list from 1980. Plenty of those companies are gone. Just think of what the next 34 years holds in store. PR pros need to buckle up and drive change, no matter how radical it may seem on paper.

Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1

4 Ways to Get a Reporter to Pay Attention to You

Back in my reporting days, I spent a good amount of time doing something that might strike many as nostalgic: interviewing sources and talking to PR people on the phone.  If only today’s reporters had time for telephonic activities. Surprise: they do! And they will take your call if you lay the groundwork first. They won’t take your call if you have nothing new or interesting to tell them.  Now, this is assuming you want to talk to a reporter on the phone, as opposed to just emailing them, liking their Facebook Post, or tweeting them from afar. Let’s assume that a journalist-PR relationship is strengthened by some human interaction.

The concept is simple yet may feel out of reach in today’s always-on media environment: reporters will pay attention to you if you pay attention to them. Here are four ways to get a reporter’s attention:

  1. Give them the story by which to tell their story: as a consumer of news and information yourself, you are attracted to the stories about people, about a certain person, or family or community. You want to read about or hear an interesting narrative that is personal, not general. Do not send them a press release and then leave them a message in the dead of night asking if they got your press release. There’s nothing wrong with sending them a press release, but don’t mistake that (and the robocall) for “the story.”
  2. Serve up the visuals. Whether it’s a few charts and graphics, an infographic or eye-catching photographs, visuals are gold for reporters who are now  (somewhat reluctantly) multimedia journalists. Make her job easier by handing over the visuals.
  3. Know (and understand) what they report on: I used to cringe at the advice at industry conferences that implored practitioners to “do your homework” — it was so basic, so obvious. And yet. Make sure you read up on what the reporter has covered in the past year, take notice of his writing style and technique, and be ready to accept that maybe this particular reporter does not cover your industry. Also be in tune to what their competitors are covering – reporters are a competitive breed and will appreciate your keeping them up to date on competitive coverage they might have missed.
  4. Share information with no strings attached. Info is currency: give it to the reporter without expecting an instant payback. This is a difficult task to master! Share industry news that’s not widely reported yet, tell the reporter what you heard or saw at an important industry conference (which of course, you attended), and don’t ask for anything in return. Reporters will think the world of you.

With tight deadlines, smaller newsrooms, a more educated readership and an unrelenting news cycle, journalists need trusted, go-to sources and great PR partners who understand them.

– Diane Schwartz

Visit me on Twitter: @dianeschwartz

 

 

 

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