When an organization is hit with a crisis, the response will often determine how long the crisis will last, in terms of negative media coverage, as well as any long-term erosion in brand reputation or lead revenue.
That’s why PR execs need to keep a close eye on how the crisis now engulfing Blue Bell Creameries plays out. On Monday the company announced that it is voluntarily recalling all of its ice cream products, because of listeria concerns, following a succession of smaller recalls.
Blue Bell realized its initial assumption that the bacteria was isolated to one machine in one room was “wrong,” after an additional half gallon of contaminated ice cream was found in its Brenham, Texas facility, according to a statement from Paul Kruse, the company’s president-CEO.
Blue Bell is trying to get in front of the crisis, which, considering the severity of the situation, may cause further damage to the 108-year-old brand. In a little more than a month, three deaths and several illnesses in Kansas and possibly Texas have been linked to the company’s products.
For communicators, the major takeaway from Blue Bell’s initial response is that however fast PR attacks a problem, it’s probably not fast enough.
In a digital age, the window for responding to a crisis keeps getting smaller.
“When there’s a recall and somebody does something quickly and when they handle it properly, we forgive it,” Phil Lempert, food industry analyst for SupermarketGuru.com, told The New York Times. “When it’s the entire product line or the entire company, people are very concerned.”
Blue Bell, which sells ice cream in 20 states, in no way is downplaying those concerns.
In a video apology (get used to it) posted on the company’s website and Facebook page, Kruse said: “We’re heartbroken over the situation and apologize to all of our Blue Bell fans and customers. Ice cream is a joy and pleasure to eat. It certainly is for me, and I do it every day. And it should never be a concern. For that, we apologize, and we’re going to get it right.”
Kruse hits the right tone, but, for the sake of transparency, he probably should have mentioned the deaths that have been linked to the company products and how the company intends to compensate the victims’ families.
Blue Bell reportedly has contracted both Burson Marsteller and kglobal for crisis management.
Now comes the heavy PR lifting. How will Blue Bell use both traditional media channels and digital venues to communicate how it’s fixing the problem? A FAQ post on its website—and linked on its Facebook page—is a good start.
Correct me if you think I’m wrong, but this is the sort of crisis in which digital needs to be subordinate to the human touch. Blue Bell’s senior executives should visit the communities that have been affected by the recall and tell consumers how things are being corrected. And it has to be a multi-pronged conversation.
Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1
As Major League Baseball’s 2015 season gets under way this week, another rite of spring is just around the corner—spring cleaning.
It’s as good a time as any for PR managers and directors to assess their work, reevaluate those campaigns that worked (or failed) and recalibrate how they use media channels to get their message out and measure the results.
With that in mind, here are a few spring-cleaning tips for PR and marketing execs to consider.
> Sharpen your pitches. It’s getting increasingly harder for PR execs to get their message across the plate. This could be a function of time-poor reporters, a saturated media market, a fickle public or all of the above. Either way, communicators should take some time to sharpen the way they and their team members pitch the media. Try and figure out how to boost your odds. Does a reporter covering your industry seem to gravitate to certain stories about the sector while avoiding others? Maybe the reporter wants to cover your company but has a problem with the designated spokesperson? Maybe he or she wants an interview with the top brass? Get better (and below-the-radar) intelligence about reporters and your pitches should improve
> Retool your lineup. PR managers should get out their scorecard to see if they can reconfigure their lineup in a way that plays to individuals’ strengths. The person who seemed to get tripped up by Twitter may be better suited for producing online video programming. The person who tends to strike out pitching the media may have a knack for online analytics. With PR campaigns needing more and more disciplines—whether digital or behavioral—brand managers need to determine who’s the best person for the gig without squeezing a square peg in a round hole.
> Gauge your measurement efforts. With apologies to the late management guru Peter Drucker, “If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.” Nevertheless, PR measurement remains a severe sticking point to enhancing business communications. Part of the problem is that too many brands and organizations take a reactionary approach to measurement, failing to bake metrics into the campaign/project from the get-go. Any PR gains may be thwarted by lousy PR measurement. Senior managers don’t want “good news,” they want to see a correlation between PR and revenue (if not earnings). Use a change in season to make some changes in your measurement efforts. Perhaps you need to be more selective in the metrics you use, or maybe you’re relying too much on the algorithm and not enough on the human touch. Are you still banking on so-called vanity metrics such as “followers” and “likes”? Keep the Endust handy.
What would you add to the list?
Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1
All the talk about mentoring can make you feel a bit left out. If you are neither a mentor nor a mentee, then what the heck are you doing with yourself? The truth is, you are probably mentoring or being mentored without even knowing it. It’s the new fabric of our work culture – people helping people. If you’re not guiding someone or asking for help on a regular basis then you are missing out in a significant way.
As communicators, we need to recognize that our pace of advancement might be inversely affected by the age of our mentors. The older you are, the better off you may be if you are mentored by a Millennial. The concept of Reverse Mentoring, first championed by GE’s Jack Welch more than a decade ago, is not only a great way for senior executives to learn the nuances of social media, it’s a way to bridge the communications gap between generations, increasing morale, retention and knowledge.
Three influential PR executives I met with recently were eager to share their experiences with reverse mentoring. Said one: “One of my young employees has been showing me how to do a tweet chat. I had no idea.” Said the other: “They are taking over – best to get to know how they think.” While much of the conversation was centered around social media and younger generations holding comfortably the Digital Native mantle, it goes without saying that Millennials and the Generation Z following them into the workplace are the future leaders, current and future customers and business creators.
Identifying a mentor – formally or informally – who is of another generation than yours and embracing the unique perspective and skills that person holds will take you far. And many Millennials are schooling the senior set to great effect for the company’s brand, too.
If you’re not engaged in some sort of reverse mentoring, you are not only missing out, you will be spinning your wheels until they eventually fall off.
– Diane Schwartz
The story about the little engine that could is a familiar and heart-warming one, a tale of a determined underdog fulfilling a difficult task against all odds. “I think I can, I think I can” is a commonly used refrain at challenging moments.
Sometimes, though, we might be stronger to think we can’t. To admit, “I think I can’t. I think I can’t” and to seek help.
This idea was brought to light last week during PR News’ Top Women in PR Awards ceremony when keynoter JJ Ramberg, host of MSBNC’s Your Business, reminded an audience of high achievers to ask for help without the fear of reprisal or embarrassment. The women who make up our 2015 class of top female communicators are a determined group that can relate to the little engine that took on the challenge of taking a stranded train over the hill while the bigger, more able locomotives refused.
I’m fairly certain that leaders of either gender know they can’t do everything well and will seek assistance every now and then. Aside from having mentors to guide us, it’s imperative that we as communicators are also able to communicate our (momentary) weaknesses and our need for assistance. To occasionally ask for help from colleagues, peers, friends and new-found business connections is to acknowledge our limits, to learn from the assistance we receive and to pay it forward.
The next time you think you’re the little engine that could or the big engine that should, consider your options. Could you use a little help?
– Diane Schwartz
Brian Williams’ decision to take a temporary leave of absence from the anchor chair at “NBC Nightly News” has done little to quell the controversy now swirling around him after Williams admitted last week that he falsely claimed he was aboard a helicopter that was “hit and crippled” by enemy fire during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“I would not have chosen to make this mistake,” Williams said on the February 4 broadcast of Nightly News. “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft from the other.”
NBC says it is investigating the claim, but the chum is in the water, and it’s hard to see how Williams survives in the anchor chair without NBC further eroding its credibility. His trustworthiness has already taken a serious hit. What’s more, soon after Williams apologized for the claim regarding the war in Iraq came reports that Williams’ coverage of Hurricane Katrina (in 2005) now is under scrutiny.
Williams, who has been anchor since 2004, has been the face of NBC News for nearly a decade, parlaying his celebrity into appearances on corporate siblings “Saturday Night Live” and (now-defunct) “30 Rock.”
But nobody’s laughing now, as Williams’ fib could cost him his job.
The scandal is a stark reminder that even the slightest embellishment in communications could seriously damage your career and reputation, not to mention the guilt by association that your brand or organization would most likely suffer if you get caught in a lie.
With that in mind, here are a few things that PR pros should never say to a reporter, lest they are metaphysically certain of its veracity:
➢ “We have an exclusive story planned for you.” You better make sure upper management is in alignment with the particular media outlet you have in mind for the exclusive. These things can change on a dime, and nothing alienates a reporter more than having an “exclusive” suddenly disappear, particularly after he told the editorial brass.
➢ “I can get you an interview with the CEO to talk about the new campaign.” Oh really? Is this something that was definitely agreed upon during a recent board meeting to discuss a specific campaign or did the CEO mention in passing that he or she wants to be more media-friendly (without providing any kind of commitment)?
➢ “I’ll be sure and get you those numbers you need.” Nothing encourages a reporter more than being assured of getting some numbers/stats/financials that can help tell the story. But what the PR department thinks is fair game for reporters the financial department may think is off limits. Make sure those internal relationships are airtight—and you know what numbers are ready for the light of day—before you start making promises to reporters.
➢ “Let me arrange for you to get a tour of the new office/plant/etc.” Sure, PR folks are inclined to give reporters and media reps a look-see of the latest addition to the company—whether that’s a brand-new wing for the corporate headquarters or opening an office—to see how it dovetails with the overall operation. But upper management often can be persnickety about showing off things to the media. If you offer a tour, be very specific to the reporter(s) about what’s fair game and what’s off limits. Don’t write checks you can’t cash.
What would you add to the list of things PR pros should never to say to reporters?
Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1
When a Florida sheriff’s office recently noticed its new crest-engraved office rug read “In Dog We Trust,” rather than “In God We Trust” it turned a $500 typo into a nearly $10k opportunity. It held an auction for the grammatically incorrect rug in which proceeds would go to the local animal rescue organization. If we could raise $9,650 (which the sheriff’s office did) for every typo, grammatical error and poor turn of phrase, bad writing and editing could actually be spun into a rather beneficial side business. Alas, poor writing or sloppy editing persists among the best brands and among the best of us. It just happens. But we can do better.
It certainly doesn’t look good for communicators when a press release is riddled with errors, when an email to a reporter is lacking punctuation and clarity or when a business memo is strung together with disparate ideas and fails to cut to the chase. Spell-check cannot save a poor communicator.
There are a few quick fixes to our post-college national writing problem:
Find an Editor: Someone on your team should serve as your editor. Never let a press release go on the wires or an important document be distributed without another set of eyes. Don’t just have anyone edit your copy – identify strong writers who have a discerning eye. Just as importantly, track the changes your editor makes so you can see for yourself what is being changed and understand your writing weaknesses.
Read Two Great Articles a Day: Whether online or in print, read something in the news or within your markets and observe how the writer grabs your interest in the first 15 seconds and how the article articulates its main points and concludes the piece. You are reading a great story, and as a storyteller you can be as interesting as that journalist.
Let Your Best Work Marinate: By this I mean don’t rush your messaging. You need to let your writing evolve over the course of a few hours or even a few days. Come back to the piece and you will always find it needs polishing and you will embrace the act of polishing because a sparkling piece of work will get noticed.
Elevator Pitches Have Legs: Sometimes an overused reference is overused because it works. If you think in terms of how you’d convey to a colleague the main points of your press release, your content marketing piece, your client email on an elevator ride from the lobby to the 10th floor, what would you say? What you come up with forms the headline and lead and helps crystallize your message. Elevator pitches get easier the more you choose to take the ride. Which leads me to the last piece of advice:
Write Your Heart Out: While writing well is not yet a lost art, the less we write complete sentences (thank you, texting!) and the less we hold up great PR writing as a benchmark of communications excellence, the more likely we are to lose ground with our stakeholders. Take your writing seriously. Craft something interesting every day. And prepare to be edited. It’s part of the writing process.
- Diane Schwartz
PS: Check out our PR News Writing Workshop on Feb 10 in San Fran. I hope you’ll be able to attend!
Forget new year’s resolutions about losing weight, completing your first novel, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail while learning how to play guitar. Those sorts of resolutions just set you up for disappointment. It’s time to get realistic. As far as career resolutions go, there’s no shortage of things we can do better. As communicators, we are fortunate to be working in a field that is constantly changing and therefore challenging our skills and patience. With that in mind, I put together 15 activities that can set you up for a more gratifying year on the job. This doesn’t mean you can’t still try to master the art of French cooking or call your in-laws once a week. Give at least a few of these a try in the coming week:
1. Become data savvy not data obsessive: understand what all the hullabaloo is about “data” in your organization and then learn how to leverage it for good, not just because.
2. Tell a good story: that’s one reason why we’re in PR, to tell great stories. If it means re-reading your favorite Rudyard Kipling short story to remind you of great storytelling, well that wouldn’t be so painful.
3. Foster a relationship: whether it’s with a co-worker, a reporter, a client or a customer, get out there and get to know someone new.
4. Look up: practice proper protocol and be in the moment by not staring down at your phone while in a meeting or in social interactions.
5. Find a mentee: help a budding communicator navigate the increasingly complex areas of PR. Seek a mentee through your own organization or through industry groups like PRSSA.
6. Give your customer a face and a name: find out who your optimal customer is (or your client’s optimal customer) and tack a photo of that person by your desk. Gear your efforts toward him or her.
7. Measure twice, cut once: best to know what the key metrics are before you launch a campaign or initiative and use those as your guide; it saves you much time and heartache in the long term.
8. Write something: practice writing every day; the more you write, the better you get at writing. Volunteer to write a blog post for your company or to guest post for a client; write an article in your company newsletter or update your group or clients with a well-crafted email memo.
9. Switch jobs (for a day) with IT: gain a better understanding of what your digital team does every day by spending some time dealing with people like us who are always needing something from them.
10. Get your policies and plans in order: do you have a social media policy? An employee handbook? A crisis plan? Have you read or updated them? Now is a good time to brush up on the dry stuff.
11. Audit your assets: take stock of your content libraries (if you have them), your photo archives, press release templates, review your About Us web page, and other assets that could come in handy in the event of a crisis, merger, acquisition, corporate change or last-minute request from a reporter.
12. Drop a social media platform: do you really need to be on Pinterest? Maybe that stagnant LinkedIn Group is making your brand look bad, not good. No need to be there if your audience is not visiting.
13. Adopt a social media platform: try out a new platform – whether it’s Snapchat, tumblr or Google+, test new social media waters to develop a stronger sense of where your should invest time and resources.
14. Hand-write a thank you note: A few times a month, thank a customer, a client, a colleague, a reporter, an analyst; be on the mental lookout for those people who are helping you and write them a note. Your letter will stand out and all parties will be grateful. (Don’t forget to mail it.)
15. Advocate for PR: I’m not telling you anything new when I say that Public Relations as a discipline is only as good as the disciples. Become an advocate for measurable PR strategies and tactics that move the needle in a positive way. Share your best practices of the trade and spread the word about the power of Public Relations.
Happy new year, friends of PR News!
- Diane Schwartz
Right around now we’re planning New Year’s resolutions—which few of us will actually keep. New Year’s resolutions are all well and good, in theory. Sure, go nuts—make a vow to hit the gym more frequently, cut down on fried foods or get more sleep.
However, there are some resolutions that don’t require time, money, or being a killjoy. We propose that PR pros vow to banish the following words and phrases from their vocabulary.
> Just saying. Are you just trying to be a wisenheimer? This has to be one of the more obnoxious ways to reinforce a point (and make the person you’re talking to feel like a dolt). The phrase is probably all the rage in collegiate precincts, but has no place among PR execs angling for a seat at the table.
> At the end of the day. Have you ever heard a more superfluous expression? The soul-crushing phrase can disproportionally trivialize (or inflate) a conversation. It just may be a crutch for covering your behind about a subject or idea about which you’re not too confident. Saying “at the end of day”—as if the situation is out of your hands and in the cosmos—does not reflect well on your PR skills.
> Pain point. Talk about one of the biggest euphemisms of our time. A “pain point” is a problem that’s plaguing your clients, or your own campaign/relationships/communications efforts, and must be overcome. Call it what it is—a problem that is adversely affecting the situation.
> Best of breed. This makes your vendor/partner sound like the company is from the canine world. And considering how fluid the marketplace is, what is best in “best of breed” on a Monday could be knocked off its pedestal by Friday. Are you working with a solid company with a sterling track record? Demonstrate to managers and clients why the company is a good fit, rather than simply saying “best of breed,” which, in a weird way, may sow doubt.
> Awesome. We may be committing heresy by suggesting that you should eliminate “awesome” from your vocabulary, but let’s face it, the word is so played out as to have lost all meaning. What isn’t “awesome” these days? We’ll defer to childbirth, spaceflight and the discovery of penicillin. But, for all else, find another adjective to describe a job well done or a successful campaign.
By divorcing yourselves from these terms, communicators will sound less colloquial and more professional. You’ll demonstrate that you don’t have to rely on jargon (and words that are more fit for hyper-active teenagers) to get your message across to clients and C-suite executives.
Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1
We’ve seen the video and we’ve read countless articles about Ray Rice’s behavior back in February of this year at an Atlantic City casino when he was caught on tape assaulting his fiancee Janay Palmer and then dragging her limp body out of the elevator. We’ve read with fascination the NFL’s multiple reactions to the assault and we’ve watched Janay stand by Ray, marry him and even apologize for her behavior.
Fast forward to now and we get to watch an incredible media plan at play. Opinions aside about domestic abuse, whether the former Baltimore Raven should be reinstated or how abhorrent his behavior was (or is). The way Janay and her PR team are handling the media is a lesson for communicators in crises.
You may or may not agree with Janay’s decision to stand by her husband, but for the sake of this post, let’s say that’s beside the point. Her control of the message over the past week was impeccable. It was neat and clear. It was consistent and had emotion. It was well-timed and facilitated the broader purpose of getting her husband back on the field.
Hiltzik Strategies was among the advisors that screened more than a dozen media outlets before choosing ESPN and The Today Show. Specifically Jemele Hill at ESPN and Matt Lauer at Today. In both interviews she portrayed her relationship as not that different from most couples: we argue but we love each other, we have weakness but we have strengths. There was no real bridging of the message away from assault or domestic abuse because she controlled the pace and tone.
While the interviews took place in early November, their release was timed to go live after an arbitrator’s decision to reinstate Rice to the NFL.
She told Lauer: “Everybody makes mistakes. After this whole situation, you would think we lived in a country full of people who never made a mistake.”
For the ESPN interview which took place (not coincidentally) at Ray Rice’s mother’s home in New Rochelle, NY, Janay negotiated the byline, with the video interview positioned “By Janay Rice as told to Jemele Hill.” In the Nov. 5 interview she spoke of how she met Ray, the Baltimore Ravens’ “knee-jerk” reaction to the assault and all the lessons learned since the incident. “I hope when people read this they realize that we’re real. I want people to know how much we love each other and how far we’ve come. Everyone has their own story, this is mine.”
If you find yourself, your brand, or a member of your team in hot water, it wouldn’t hurt to turn to the Janay Rice crisis management playbook:
> Take time to formulate a strong response that is aligned with the end goal: Janay waited seven months to speak to the media.
> Choose your interviewers, not just the media outlet: vet the journalists who are going to interview you and limit the number of interviews you grant.
> Time it well: The Rices waited until the arbitrator ruling to get their message out. It helped that the ruling favored Ray over the NFL, but either way it was the right timing.
While Ray Rice’s behavior back in February is condoned by no one, the narrative is now about rehabilitation and forgiveness. In many circles, Ray Rice is still vilified. But when the very woman that he assaults is asking the public to forgive and move on, and she does so with grace and compassion, it is difficult to turn away.
– Diane Schwartz
I was watching a New York Knicks game recently when Carmelo Anthony sank a three-point bucket to tie the game. Melo jumped for joy, as the Madison Square Garden crowd roared with approval.
A guy sitting courtside (probably in his late 30s or early 40s) leaped out of his seat to revel in the moment, pumping his fists in the air. But the boy sitting next to him (probably 10 or 12 years old) was oblivious to the live action surrounding him. He looked like he couldn’t care less about all the excitement on the basketball floor. His eyes were glued to his smartphone.
If you thought holding people’s attention during events and conferences was tough now, just wait until that young fellow gets into the workforce.
Good luck getting your message through to him. That’s why PR managers have to take the lead in figuring out how to reimagine their company’s events and conferences. And fast. Otherwise, funding live meetings might turn into a profound case of throwing good money after bad.
Despite the dramatic changes in consumer behavior wrought by the Web, most business conferences/events/meetings remain painting by numbers.
You know the drill: The work session starts off with an anecdote or two, which goes into the heart of the presentation, accompanied by bullet points and visuals to help illustrate the spiel. A Q&A usually follows and then the speaker wraps things up before assuring the audience that he or she is available for follow-ups.
Remarkably, the model has changed very little, just as more and more people who attend conferences consider them a mere trifle to their computer screens.
Communicators may not want to blow up their events and conferences altogether, which is understandable from a budgetary standpoint. But they certainly need to shake things up and create more compelling ways to hold their audiences’ attention.
Here are a few suggestions:
> Make your meetings much more participatory. And we’re not talking about asking attendees at the beginning of a work session how many of them heard of (the latest product making a splash in your industry). Put on your disruptive hats. You need to engage attendees in ways that go beyond having them nod in response to a question or simply raise their hands. And it can’t be a one-shot deal. The participatory aspects should thread throughout the entire presentation.
> Create a playlet; insert strategically. Make it challenging for attendees to stay glued to their smartphones. Instead of starting a presentation with a talking head, produce a very short play (with characters) that can goose people’s attention and help drive the overall message. Surely, you have some frustrated actors, directors and comedians in-house. Harness their talents to make a more creative presentation—and one that is rooted in storytelling (as opposed to lecturing, which makes younger folks run for the hills).
> Rethink the Q&A. We may be committing heresy by suggesting this, but don’t end work sessions with a Q&A. By making presentations more freewheeling in nature, attendees won’t be conditioned into thinking that they can tune out the bulk of the presentation because there will be a Q&A at the end. You need to close your presentations with a sharp and resounding message, and one that the brand owns.
What are we missing?
Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1