Please visit your local mom-and-pop shops this holiday season. Go to that toy store that’s been around for 65 years and which just suffered another humiliating rent increase. Buy your wrapping paper at the greeting card store that’s hanging on by its fingernails and getting by on deeply felt smiles.
OK, my commercial’s over. I’m here to talk about Zappos. I’ll bet you’ve got the Zappos.com site pulled up on a browser window right now as you balance work email against crushing holiday gift pressures.
We all know how good Zappos’ customer service is. The Zappos site is a breeze to wade through. Ordering is similarly a breeze and returning shoes is as easy as firing a paper airplane at your recycling bucket. We also know that it’s reportedly a great place to work. Every employee is considered a customer service rep, whether or not they deal directly with customers. Risk-taking is encouraged.
Zappos’ customer service and its skill in publicizing its workplace culture have snowballed into a self-perpetuating snowball of positive PR. So what has Zappos done this holiday season? It packed a new snowball and sent it rolling.
At 11:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 9, vans and trucks ferrying 30 Zappos employees and nearly 2,000 gift boxes rolled into Hanover, N.H. Through the night and continuing until 6 a.m. on Nov. 10, the intrepid Zappos employees dropped off on doorsteps boxes containing warm-weather gear such as hats, gloves and socks, as well as sunglasses, headphones and backpacks, a reward to Hanover for being home to so many loyal Zappos customers.
This Grinch-in-reverse stealth move was captured on video and promoted to the media, building on Zappos’ legacy as a PR-savvy company that transmits its values through action. The notion of giving back could not be made more literal.
The Hanover surprise gift drop-off is in character for Zappos, but what if you work for a risk-averse brand that’s not as adept at customer relationships? You might have some trouble selling such a dead-of-night stunt.
“This sort of out-of-the box big idea thinking has to start internally,” Kristin Richmer, Zappos Awareness Marketing, said to me via email. “We’re big proponents of our culture that encourages these types of bold stunts, but I’m sure there are companies out there that may have hesitations about taking on such a daring activation. We believe having a well-thought-through plan and plenty of passion will typically help generate internal excitement.”
Richmer counsels marketers, PR pros and anyone involved in customer relationships to harness their own conviction, determination and drive when trying to sell internally a seemingly outrageous loyalty-building effort. “That will help prove an idea is the right one, and what’s the worst that can happen?” she says.
In the case of the Hanover drop-off, the worst that happened was a sleepless night for some employees. All in a night’s work.
—Steve Goldstein, editorial director, PR News @SGoldsteinAI
Envision a nationally televised debate among leaders in Public Relations. Who you picture on that stage is a pretty good indicator of the state of our profession. To keep the personalities out of this for now, what issues would you want debated? What are the themes resonating now that also will prepare us for a stronger future as the leaders of reputation management, storytelling and fair public discourse?
Following are some potential debate topics that Anderson Cooper and the like might ask PR leaders. Please chime in since it’s about all of us coming together for a brighter future, right?
- Social media as strategy: After all the Facebook likes and Twitter followers, what do you have to show for it? Does social media move our brands forward or are we wallowing in a false sense of popularity or unpopularity? How can we make social media communications more meaningful?
- Are we really that into Measurement? At a PR News conference in early October, roughly 90% of attendees said they did not know what the Barcelona Principles are. Does that mean communicators aren’t following those measurement guidelines, and is it beholden on senior leaders to ensure that all PR staff study and execute on this short list?
- Are we getting closer to integrated communications? How can Marketing and PR collaborate more effectively and how can we resolve the issue of who gets a bigger piece of the budgetary pie? In other words, why can’t we all just get along?
- Is the press release dead?: Media relations is a touchstone of Public Relations, but are reporters and other stakeholders reading press releases? We know the release is an important communications vehicle, so how can we make sure it’s leveraged effectively and is not the sole means of telling a story?
- Is voice communication losing its sway? With texting, social media, emoji mania and email communication representing the majority of daily interactions, are people forgetting how to talk to one another and how can PR lead the way?
- Is employee communications an HR thing? Though employees are on the front lines and the most likely brand ambassadors, what role does and should PR play internally?
- Can PR be tied to sales? We’re told that it can, but how are you proving this and once proven why are we not shouting it out from the rooftops? This goes back to my Measurement question earlier. Shouldn’t PR be a driver of sales?
- Why isn’t there more Diversity in PR? What more can we be doing so that at all voices are represented in this profession, that ethnic, racial and gender diversity are not a problem within our own ranks?
- PR advocacy: there are at least a handful of PR associations representing the industry, but are we doing enough within our organizations to evangelize the power of PR?
Let’s end the debate on a high note. Public Relations is stronger than ever, as evidenced by the growing number of people entering the profession, the increase in PR compensation year over year and the utilization of PR counsel at the highest levels of an organization. The issues we face, however, will continue to challenge our profession. Let’s deal with them head-on.
- Diane Schwartz
Take a look at your “Meet the Team” and “About Us” pages on your web site. Do these pages reflect a multifaceted workforce? Do the photos of your team and their bios underscore an understanding of your many stakeholders? In other words, can visitors relate to you? You might not think these questions are worth asking until a reporter clicks on Meet the Team and asks just that.
That’s what happened late last month when Common Ground Public Relations was hired by the City of Ferguson, MO, to handle calls from the media following the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in the St Louis suburb. As if the media didn’t have enough angles with which to cover the Ferguson story, it was handed one on a white porcelain platter. The PR firm that was hired to take all media calls following the crisis, as Talking Points Media noted, “appears to be staffed entirely by white people.” Noted Daily Kos in its headline about the firm’s hiring: “City of Ferguson PR Firm Has Something In Common with Its Police Force.”
The PR industry has been slowly working on its diversity problem, recognizing that less than 15% of PR professionals in the US are of African-American, Asian or Hispanic/Latino descent (per the Bureau of Labor Statistics). It is a real problem that needs a more aggressive push by our industry associations, PR leaders and hiring managers in communications departments and at PR firms. PRSA’s Diversity Tool Kit is a nice-to-have resource, along with its Diversity Committee, but is it enough? Ironically, the press hasn’t mentioned that Common Ground’s team supposedly includes just one male among the seven pictured. Diversity comes in all colors, races and genders.
I agree with Denise Bentele, president and CEO of Common Ground Public Relations, when she told Odwyer’s that “the color of our skin reflected nothing of our concern to help our broader community respond to the watchful world.” It appears the firm is doing a decent job helping the City of Ferguson communicate not only to its residents but to a world that’s watching the investigation and public unrest.
There was nothing Common Ground could have done in the time that it was solicited by the City of Ferguson and the hours that it took for the media to click on Meet the Team and see a sea of white faces. To have quickly added some diversity to that page would surely have been snuffed out and would have positioned the firm as disingenuous. (That doesn’t stop Common Ground, however, from exploring diversity in its hiring practices.)
The knock on the City of Ferguson for hiring an “all white” firm amid a race-infused crisis is fair, and such obvious bait for reporters that it’s already a non-story. For the PR industry, the bigger problem is why more people with diverse backgrounds do not want to make PR their career. Here’s to a future where Meet the Team is not met with scrutiny.
- Diane Schwartz
Let’s connect on Twitter: @dianeschwartz
Which workplace exchanges do you find to be most difficult? For most people, they’re centered on two things: Personnel and performance. Both of these things straddle the worlds of internal communications and HR, and both are also general managerial challenges.
I recently read an interesting column in Business Insider about the toughest conversations you can have at work. They were:
1. The Emotional Dismissal Conversation
2. The Awkward Personality Conversation
3. The Underperformance Conversation
All these are tough, but they are typically part of the same progression, and the progression usually starts with number three above, and ends with number one. Here are the toughest workplace conversations, from my perspective, and how I proceed.
These kinds of issues run the gamut—from people who are squabbling, to turf wars, to folks who simply don’t work well together. Sometimes goals don’t sync up. Other times, actual performance doesn’t fit the needs of the job, and that’s typically when the three-conversation pattern that Business Insider described kicks in. To my mind, all of these things are a huge challenge and all of them divert from the common business goal.
I’ve learned over the years that a sustained, tight focus on performance is the way to go. There should be no politics, no gossiping, just set a tone for the group that all you care about is results. Results require collaboration. Keeping everyone focused on that creates a sense of confidence that relaxes a group and empowers them to experiment and achieve.
This is another difficult area, but for communicators, it’s critical. Everyone from entry-level account managers to CEOs deals with either external clients, or with the public. Think of how frequent it is that a lower-level employee embarrasses a brand on social media, either when representing the company, or through some personal post that goes viral.
Of course, we’re talking about conversations—whether with a subordinate or a colleague, or with an external customer. I’ve learned you can’t wing it when it comes to customer conversations. Too much is at stake. Policies that everyone knows about and understands are critical, and these have to come from the top. I’ve had many conversations with customers in my career, and when business is on the line, they can be really tense. For me, the way to ensure that you preserve the business—if that’s the goal, sometimes it isn’t—the relationship has to come first. (This is a bit counter-intuitive, because I just stressed the importance of policies.) If your customers trust that you have their interests at heart, and you have thought through their challenges and understand their objectives—you’ll keep the business. If they feel like you’re officious, and policy-bound, you won’t. Never use the word “unfortunately.” That conveys a focus on your internal policy, not on customer-service. It is also condescending. Never use the phrase, “We’re not set up to do that” for the same reasons. Always be ready with a solution or two.
For a lot of professionals, in PR and elsewhere, this is always a stress-inducing conversation, especially if you’ve fallen short of your goals. But it doesn’t have to be. Putting aside the possibility of the fundamental lack of skills to do a job, most business-performance shortfalls relate to external factors in the market, not to your execution. So it really is an opportunity to shape a conversation about missing goals into the cool ways you’re going to pivot to adjust to changes in the market.
What are the business conversations you struggle with the most, and what advice can you offer?
I am writing this blog post because I know you either watch Game of Thrones or have to listen to people who watch it. Not that I’m trying to game the system, but let’s face it: you need a break from your cerebral workday to think or water-cooler-talk about your favorite TV show, be it Mad Men, Dora the Explorer, The Voice or Game of Thrones.
Just as you can’t imagine yourself as an explorer with a talking map or a talented singer whose voice would cause people to turn their chairs, you can’t imagine working with someone whose manners and actions smell and feel like a Game of Thrones character. Or can you?
To wit, herewith I present four characters from the May 4 episode “First of His Name” — let me know if any of these folks are akin to people you work with, for or against? Or perhaps one of these characters is a reflection of yourself.
Cersei: she senses that she is not only getting older, but that being a woman may prevent her from running the kingdom. Would her father Tywin even consider his daughter to be his heir? She’s a strong woman (deeply flawed and sleeping with her brother – I must add) but are the male leaders even noticing her?
Petyr: he’s been pulling all the strings. A savvy, cunning politician whose investment in brothels has resulted in both unparalleled financial acumen and insider knowledge that keeps on giving, Petyr is also known as Littlefinger. Here’s the ultimate manipulator who has a nickname that is the antithesis of his true power.
Sansa: always the victim. She goes from one bad situation to another. Now stuck in the house of her aunt Lysa Arryn, she feels helpless and foolish. We’re rooting for her to figure out a way to break out and be an independent woman. It is best that she finds her way back home, to Winterfell, and stay put.
Podrick: the loyal one. Formerly the squire to Tyrion Lannister, Pod is asked to testify against Tyrion and refuses. For his safety, he is sent away to be the squire of the very capable Brienne, who discovers that Pod is not a good horseman or cook. But he is loyal and interested in learning new skills. And that is worth something.
For those of you who are diehard Game of Thrones fans, there’s no doubt I am insulting you with my perfunctory description of beloved or hated characters. But if we can better understand those around us and improve our communication with characters of all natures, then it will have been worth it.
– Diane Schwartz
Dispensing advice is a centuries-old activity and it never gets old. When the PR News team decided to produce a Best PR Advice Book, it looked to the smartest people in the room to write it: the speakers and attendees of our PR News conferences. Over the past two years, we’ve disseminated the little black Advice Book to our conference attendees, asking them to write one piece of advice that has helped them get ahead in their career. With smiles on their faces, our friends of PR News would stare up at the ceiling for a second until they had their Eureka moment, and with pen to paper (most but not all legibly), they’d share an interesting piece of wisdom. Key themes emerged – among them the need to be empathetic, to constantly hone writing skills, to humanize PR efforts, and to not be afraid of failure. The Advice Book is validation and a reminder that the best communications efforts require the best communicators.
I had the honor of editing this first volume of The Best PR Advice Book and enjoyed the contributions from PR professionals from all walks of life and organizations, including Southwest Airlines, Clorox, Easter Seals, IKEA, Raytheon, Weber Shandwick, Ogilvy, AARP, NASCAR, sole practitioners and small businesses. We all know how easy it is to give advice; it’s the heeding that’s the challenge. The book is divided into chapters based on the themes shared by our community: Social Media, Crisis Management, Leadership, Employee Communications, Media Relations, Agency/Client Relations. Below are some of the highlights. I’d say they are my favorites, but as my mother told me when my second child was born: “Remember, never play favorites.”
Check out these words to the wise from your peers who contributed to the Advice Book:
“Empathize before you strategize.”
“Don’t bury the bad.”
“Give social media platforms a face, not a logo.”
“Communication is not what you say, it is what the other person hears.”
“If you come with a problem, come with two solutions.”
“The harder you work, the luckier you get.”
“If there is a smile on your face, then there is a smile in your voice.”
“Do the job you want before you get it.”
“Talk to strangers.”
Choose your boss carefully.”
“Get on the good side of your IT department.”
“Flawless execution of a bad strategy is still a bad strategy.”
“You cannot improve what you don’t measure.”
“Give your people the resources to do their work, then get out of the way.”
…Please feel free to add your favorite piece of advice to this blog post, and we’ll consider it for the next volume of the PR Advice Book.
– Diane Schwartz
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
As I write this I’m watching a report on MSNBC criticizing the apology issued by 60 Minutes for a report last month about the attack on the embassy in Benghazi.
The apology, by correspondent Lara Logan, was not enough—that was the consensus.
“It was not nearly satisfying,” said guest David Brock. “I thought it was 60 Minutes, not 60 Seconds.” The show is all about holding sources accountable, Brock said, and 60 Minutes should do the same for itself.
This has been a big week for apologies. President Obama apologized for the bumpy rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Home Depot apologized for a racist tweet.
And 60 Minutes still hasn’t been able to contain the damage.
Public apologies by organizations almost always fall to the communications team, the PR pros. And there’s plenty of scholarship on how to do apologies best, and put unfortunate mistakes behind your company or organization. Among those things are to act immediately and to commit to an investigation.
But I sometimes think the only way to really handle apologies is to not make mistakes in the first place. Seriously. Think about it. In politics and business, if you make a mistake, apologies are demanded. The volume gets higher and higher, and the demands more hysterical. It’s rare indeed that you can tough things out, although that sometimes does happen.
In politics, there’s an “apology game,” where one side demands an apology for some perceived transgression, whether there’s an actual offense or not.
And then there’s the apology trap—whatever the offense, no apology ever clears the record. Even when apologies are accepted, mistakes are never forgotten. Years—decades—later, whatever the initial incident was, it morphs into a “scandal.” It will remain on your record forever, dredged up in the media whenever it suites the story.
So if you’re a PR pro, what to do? Here’s my advice: Don’t apologize as a way to placate others. Don’t expect absolution, because it won’t come. Apologize because you know you (or your organization) messed up and that it’s the right thing to do. Period.
Amid all the noise surrounding Barneys New York and its alleged racial profiling, and whether the rap mogul Jay-Z should back out of his partnership with the luxury retailer, came this little noticed fact: Only 25 percent of the proceeds from the partnership, where sales are intended to benefit Jay-Z’s Shawn Carter Foundation, will actually go to the foundation.
And no doubt, only a fraction of that 25 percent will go to the ultimate objective, scholarships for economically challenged students.
And therein lies a significant issue inherent in all CSR efforts—trust. When people hear about a non-profit entity serving a worthy cause, the first thing many people think is, ‘how much of the proceeds are actually going to the cause?’
It’s a common question people ask themselves before they take out their checkbooks, and it’s legit. For example, Business Insider reported earlier this month that “a shockingly small amount of money from NFL pink merchandise goes to breast cancer research.”
How small? Business Insider said that for every $100 in pink merchandise sold, $12.50 goes to the NFL. Of that, $11.25 goes to the American Cancer Society and the NFL keeps the rest.
What these reports do is dampen charitable giving because people have images of well-paid executive directors, lavish staff salaries and benefits and rich expense accounts.
And so, from a communications perspective, PR pros who manage CSR and charitable giving need to know at least one thing: The actual percentages of funds going to a charity or cause needs to become part of CSR messaging, because the media is going to report on it anyway and it’s better to be ahead of the story.
And by mastering this one thing, you can avoid the reaction that ‘oh, well, it’s just another non-profit enriching itself before doing accomplishing social good.’