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
A while back I compiled a list of annoying phrases and words we utter as communicators (and human beings), from “at the end of the day” to “guru” and “epic”. The list, via my blog post, grew as you added your own phrases that annoy (“I don’t hate that” and “synergy,” to name a few).
When the other day I heard someone complain about not being able to take a campaign viral, I knew it was time to create The Epic List of Useless PR Tactics. To make this epic, you will need to add to it, shamelessly and without hesitation. Every profession has tactics that consistently don’t work because the very premise of them is flawed.
I should preface by stating that most PR people I know, and whom we cover in PR News, are hard-working, intelligent and effective. But we all know colleagues who subscribe to one of the tactics below that only serves to set PR back as a profession:
Creating a viral campaign as goal #1: it’s gratifying when a campaign goes viral like the Oreo blackout tweet or the ice bucket challenge and social media has accelerated our ability to spread our messages (for better or worse). But understanding the motivations and psychologies of your stakeholders rather than making the medium (Twitter, Facebook, etc) the central focus will more likely result in spreadable content.
Using ad value equivalencies as a metric: While public relations is still struggling to agree on a standard metric, it has come a long way with the Barcelona Principles and matrices to better measure the value of PR in general and a campaign in particular. Applying AVEs to PR is the best route to going backwards.
Spraying and praying: you need media coverage, so the best way to get that is to send the same email and press release to thousands of journalists, most of whom do not cover your industry. Wrong! Even with updated and accurate databases at our disposal to target the appropriate journalist or influencer, telling a story to the right audience is still elusive to many.
Baiting and switching: there’s nothing a client hates more than thinking they’ve just hired a seasoned PR counselor only to be met the next week by someone a few years out of college who’s the lead on the account. After nearly 20 years in the PR space, I can say that there’s more transparency in agency-client relations and less bait-and-switch; the minority cases drown out the advancements.
Forgetting you have a voice: Email is an excellent communication tool but nothing beats talking to someone in person or by phone. Go retro and phone an industry friend, meet with a reporter or client and meet up with stakeholders on their turf (industry conferences, for example)
Forgetting you have ears: as with most disciplines, PR suffers from hearing loss. Listen to what your stakeholders are saying and be present in the places they are saying it. Listening is a workout: you have to discipline yourself to do it regularly but the rewards are noticeable.
Working in a silo: if you want to limit what your organization can achieve, then it’s important you stay neatly tucked into your department. But if you see that the lines have blurred and that it takes a village to raise the bar, then you know that aligning with your marketing peers (see my last blog on this), and even those in IR, IT, HR and other two and three letter departments will be the way forward for effective communications.
I want to hear from you. You’re on the front lines. What are some PR tactics we need to put an end to, stat? Please add to my list.
On twitter: @dianeschwartz
William Goldman, the author and screenwriter (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men), famously said, “In Hollywood, no one knows anything.”
You might say the same thing about the PR field, at least when it comes to so-called influencers.
In his book “Everything is Obvious* Once You Know the Answers,” (2011,Crown Business), Duncan J. Watts, a principal researcher at Microsoft, discusses influencers and the ability of a person (or a blogger) to magnify a message to help raise brand awareness and boost visibility.
Watts gave a presentation last week at the PR Council’s Critical Issues Forum.
Whether they care to admit or not, for many companies and organizations locating influencers is often a nonstarter.
“One of the most confusing aspects of the influencer debate, in fact, is that no one can really agree on who the influencers are in the first place,” Watts writes.
In that vein, Watts shatters three myths about influencers and provides a dose of reality for each:
Myth #1: Social epidemics can be engineered by targeting influencers.
The Reality: Social epidemics are brought about in largely unpredictable ways, just like forest fires, Watts said. “You wouldn’t see a large forest fire and think that there was anything special about the spark that started it,” he said. “Yet for some reason when we observe dramatic social change, we assume it required some special person to start it. In reality, social change depends on some complicated combination of context and environment and interactions between many people. Boiling it down after the fact to the influence of a handful of special people makes for a good story but has little predictive power.”
Myth #2: There is some class of “influencers” who are both extraordinarily influential and also accessible like ordinary people.
The Reality: People are either accessible or influential, but seldom both. “At one extreme there are ordinary people who are reasonably accessible but who exert ordinary influence. And at the other extreme there are powerful figures like celebrities who have extraordinary influence, or gatekeepers who control access to influence, but in either case they are hard or expensive to influence,” Watts said. “Given some budget, it ought to be possible to find some optimal tradeoff between targeting a smaller number of more influential individuals and a larger number of less influential individuals. But there’s no free lunch.”
Myth #3: You can find the influencers just by using your intuition.
The Reality: Every campaign is only effective or ineffective compared with something else that you could have done with the same budget. “Just because you create some influencer map and use to target some influencers and something good happens doesn’t mean your campaign ‘worked,’” Watts said. “It would be like running a drug trial without a control group and claiming your drug worked because some people got better. To get FDA approval you have to show that the drug worked better than whatever the control group received. The same test should be required for all claims about influencer marketing.”
Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1
Inevitably the question arises when you’re in a room full of communicators: how do we break down the silos between PR and Marketing? I recently moderated a panel with Andrew Bowins of Mastercard and Jay Bartlett of Pitney Bowes on the topic of marketing-PR collaboration, or lack thereof in many organizations. We agreed that a path toward “togetherness” – as we’re all in this together – could mean better performance for your organization.
Both Jay and Andrew agreed that the departments need to not only talk to one another more often, but force collaboration into the culture until it becomes the culture. A few audience members shared how their organizations are literally breaking down the cubicles and re-engineering work spaces so that marketing and PR colleagues are sitting side by side.
There are a few elephants in the room when it comes to PR-Marketing collaboration and these animals are filling the space: budget and org chart. Most organizations have separate PR and marketing budgets and there’s an inherent competition between the two to get a larger slice of a smaller pie. Then there’s the organization chart which is dusted off every now and then and tweaked, not transformed. Who reports to whom and who ultimately has the CEO’s ear is inextricably linked to budget, performance and outcomes. Understanding the new skills needed to accelerate growth may mean rethinking job titles, responsibilities and organizational structure.
At PR News’ Social Media Summit last week there was a consensus that marketing and PR need to partner more regularly and in particular when it comes to the rapid pace of social media communications. Who owns social media is not so much the question when both departments agree that their audience owns it.
PR and Marketing may get married one day – perhaps by necessity. But for the marriage to last it needs to do what most successful couples do: spend a lot of time together, move in and get to know how each other lives (my mother would disagree on this) and then get engaged. Work out the money issues and day to day responsibilities. Stick together in sickness and in health. You’re going to need each other.
– Diane Schwartz