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
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
I’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.
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.
I 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.
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
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:
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
It’s not every day you get to see the Mona Lisa in person. And for those of you who’ve been to The Louvre, you know it takes about a day to find the room where the Mona Lisa hangs and then a half day to wiggle your way to the front of the crowd to catch sight of the iconic painting by Leonardo da Vinci.
When my daughter and I visited Paris a few weeks ago and came face to face with the painting, we were in awe. Not of its artistry but of the power of one small painting of a Florentine housewife named Lisa Gherardini to fascinate millions of people worldwide, to cause heartbreak, suicide and spats among family members as they argue over whether it’s worth the foot blisters to find the little painting tucked in a bulletproof glass case. Let’s face it – and please forgive me art aficionados, historians and relatives of the da Vinci and Gherardini families: The Mona Lisa is not the prettiest painting in the Louvre. It’s not even the prettiest painting in that room. The Wedding Feast at Cana on the other side of the room is quite impressive.
What is fascinating is the story behind the painting: the mystery of this young woman, that interesting smile and why da Vinci chose to paint her of all people. What’s kept us talking about this for more than 500 years is the story behind this 1503 painting, the interpretation upon interpretation of every aspect of the painting, including whether the subject really is Lisa Gherardini. “The emotions, the intelligence, the obvious wit that [da Vinci] captured are what make Lisa’s face so alive and so fascinating to us,” notes Dianne Hales in her new book “Mona Lisa”. That people of all sentiments and backgrounds are so passionate about this work of art is not enough to create the phenomenon. It’s the story of the subject herself, the narrative of the making of the painting, and the tale of its journey that positions the Mona Lisa as the most buzzworthy subjects ever, even accounting for the Kardashians.
I have read so many stories about Mona Lisa that when I actually view the painting I see one of the greatest stories ever told. Beyond the canvas, the Mona Lisa stirs mystery, empathy, infatuation, love, curiosity. She is approachable, yet hard to get. And she might not even be the she we think she is. She is smiling but she clearly knows more than I do. Which brings me back to reality. I don’t know much about art, clearly, but I do know that if you want to create something with appeal that is cherished for centuries (or even for this fiscal year), make sure your subject is interesting. Choose a subject that is unconventional. Make sure your story palette has the right colors and your canvas the right texture. Make it so good people will want to steal it, as was the case with the Mona Lisa which was stolen from the Louvre back in 1911. That, by the way, was great PR for the painting, as it brought a community together as they grieved and awaited its return. The thief’s defense was that he fell in love with Mona Lisa. “I fell victim to her smile.”
Take a look at the stories you tell, the messages you convey, the pictures you paint of your brand. Can you find your Mona Lisa? She might be staring right at you.
– Diane Schwartz
LeBron James’ stunning announcement on Friday that he was heading back to Cleveland and rejoining the Cavaliers provides some food for thought for PR pros. Make that a feast.
For starters, it certainly didn’t go unnoticed that James chose Sports Illustrated—if ever there was a symbol of traditional media—to tell the world that he was returning to the Cavs after spending the last four years playing (and winning two championships) for the Miami Heat.
Sure, brands and organizations are tripping over themselves to develop more robust social media strategies. But James’ use of SI to get the word out is a reminder that when you have a critical announcement affecting myriad stakeholders, you might want to go with the most trusted media source and shoot for maximum impact.
James’ beautifully written letter, as told to SI’s Lee Jenkins, was in stark contrast to the circus-like atmosphere surrounding “The Decision” in 2010. That’s when James announced to the world, via ESPN, that he “was taking his talents to South Beach” after playing seven seasons for the Cavs.
Indeed, James’ most recent letter makes a compelling case that when you have something serious to say, less is more, and low-key is the right key.
“I’m not having a press conference or a party,” the letter says. “After this, it’s time to get to work.”
The 4x NBA MVP also demonstrates a knack for transparency, which is key for communications. The letter neutralizes any critics by saying his return to Cleveland is not about having trouble with Heat management or thinking that the team has cooled off competitively, but a burning desire to go home (and who among us can argue with that)? The story writes itself.
And by forgiving the erratic behavior of Cavs’ owner Dan Gilbert following James’ departure for South Beach four years ago, James also shows a talent for putting himself in another person’s shoes—no small feat for PR pros whose job is to figure out how receptive their audiences will be to certain messages.
Finally, in a move worthy of one of his sweet sweeps to the hoop, James’ letter shows communicators how to kill two birds with one stone when it comes to effective messaging.
“I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up.”
It’s another PR lesson from James, who combines an emotional pitch with a need for the practical. What more can your constituents possibly ask for?
Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1
It’s the definitive question in C-suites, boardrooms and industry conferences: is there a correlation between PR and sales? It’s safe to say that, as a whole, communicators have not done a stellar job at demonstrating the link between PR and the top or bottom line.
While PR can sometimes directly be tied to sales, I am not espousing that it should always be tied to sales. Rather, your role as a valuable public relations practitioner includes demonstrating a return on investment from your PR efforts (refer to #3 in the Barcelona Principles). That “return” is not always about revenue; it’s about building awareness, improving reputation, informing stakeholders, and more.
There’s only so much you can control when it comes to the actual sales close. But you can be a part of ensuring there are processes in place to draw a correlation between your performance and that of your organization. Get familiar with your typical customer’s buying journey and understand that your sales team comes into the journey rather late in the game. Consultant Debbie Qaquish, in a column on prnewsonline, explains rather adeptly how PR can, and why it should, augment sales.
What’s missing in many organizations is a collaborative approach in which the marketing mix includes PR from start to finish: PR is not thrown into the mix half way for good measure. It’s not sprinkled onto the mix as a nice to have ingredient and it’s not heaped on at the end to give it flavor. Rather, PR is a formidable ingredient in an organization’s marketing mix. For this to happen, the leaders in an organization need to believe in the power of PR and you need to preach what you practice. Here are 3 ways to begin connecting your PR efforts to sales:
1. Talk to your sales team regularly. Do you know who the top salespeople are at your organization? Ask them what their clients are saying about your brand and products. Equip the salespeople with supporting data, materials and anything you think would help them sell more. Set up monthly meetings with your sales colleagues, with the goal being to give them the updates, trends, thought leadership pieces and other supporting materials that will set them apart from competitors. You can’t sell for them but you can sell with them.
“Run your communications team like a sales team,” advises Mark Stouse, vice president at BMC Software, in a recent Q&A with PR News. “Focus on aligning your marketing and communications efforts with the three legs of sales productivity — demand generation, deal expansion and deal velocity.”
2. Know SEO. Search engine optimization is not the sole domain of IT, Marketing or an outsourced firm. Optimize your content so it’s landing high in search results and attracting the right eyeballs. Whether you’re on WordPress or a custom content management system, you need to make your words sing louder and live longer online. There are countless tools available to learn the keywords your prospective customers are using (such as SEO Moz) and helpful PR/SEO workshops, but there’s no gaming the system. Produce fresh, relevant content and you’ll increase traffic, which should boost sales. Whether it’s Google Analytics or a premium tool, track your visitors’ conversion rate so you can prove that what your department is producing online results in positive, monetizable action.
3. Optimize social for sales. Understand your audience behavior on social. Work with your marketing team to drive traffic to your Pinterest board or your Facebook page and don’t be afraid to sell them something while they’re there. You might currently be investing in social promotions and advertising, so why not complement those efforts with direct selling on your own social pages? Additionally, if your press release is not optimized with multimedia and unique links to points of sales (where applicable) then you are wasting a good press release opportunity.
There will come a day when we stopping putting a question mark after PR’s role in the marketing mix and its tremendous value to organizational growth. But this will require an integrated communications approach and a collaborative spirit. Do you have it in you?
- Diane Schwartz
Let’s connect on Twitter: @dianeschwartz
So you have a major meeting this week. Let’s say it’s a really important client meeting. You just landed a big account, and now you’re working out the details of who’s going to manage what. Or maybe the corporate communications department is tasked with implementing a social media and earned media campaign for a new branding initiative. It could even simply be an important cross-department meeting on employee relations.
The details differ, but the stakes are always the same. This is strategically important. It always strikes me as odd, then, that behavior in meetings is like the Wild West. It’s remarkable how norms for meeting etiquette vary so much. It depends on the company culture, and even on senior person present. I’ve seen people on their computers and phones for extended periods when they’re in meetings with the CEO. Or with a client. Wait, who—or what—is more important than that? I’ve seen people leave sales calls and return 10 minutes later—to me that’s absolutely unacceptable.
I’ve seen senior managers ignore or forgive favored folks for that kind of behavior while getting upset at others. A lot of the cues come from the managers, and too often, the managers are too busy with other things, or other agendas, to enforce decorum.
So here’s my list. Basically, as a communications pro, you should always behave in a meeting as you would if you were on the agency side and meeting with a prospective client or, if you’re in-house, with your C-suite.
Here are the do’s:
• Come prepared with ideas.
• Pay attention at all times.
• Do more listening than talking. You learn more, and people who withhold comment until they have something really important to say only enhance the importance of what they’re saying, because they’re perceived as deliberate and wise.
• Don’t interrupt. (There are at least two exceptions: When you’re the boss and someone is droning incessantly. When you’re a participant and the speaker is factually incorrect and droning incessantly.)
• Sit up straight.
• Take notes, but don’t take them on your computer because you look like you’re on e-mail.
And here are some don’ts:
• Don’t open your computer and give the screen more attention than the meeting.
• Don’t engage with your phone for e-mail or anything else.
• Don’t conduct side conversations.
• Don’t leave the room unless absolutely necessary.
• On conference calls, don’t mute the phone and do other tasks.
• Manage conflict well. If you’re debating, always offer a solution.
What other important items of business-meeting etiquette are there? What rules can you share?