For reasons that escape me now, I said yes to my son Max when he asked if we could go to Comic Con together this past weekend. Sounded like a fun day out in New York City: hanging with 125,000 pop culture fans at the Javits Center, more than half of whom came dressed as their favorite character from film, TV, comics, video games. I learned from Max that this is called “cosplay,” as in costume play.
Preparation was key, so I checked out the Comic Con NY web site for tips. Among them were to Shower and Don’t Make It Too Realistic (ie, don’t bring real weapons into the convention center). I knew I was in for a crude awakening.
Because I’m not a “real” fan of 97% of the brands and products exhibiting at Comic Con, I followed my son from booth to booth, session to session with the personal goal of understanding what all the fuss was about. Why would so many people want to spend an entire day or weekend scrunched into a convention center with strangers who clearly didn’t heed tip #3 to shower before attending, and certainly didn’t think their bosses would see them in that Captain America leotard?
It was clear from the moment I bumped into Thor that I was witnessing Real Community. The passion among the fans at Comic Con was unlike any I’ve seen before at an event. The hunger to meet a favorite graphic artist or a cult favorite TV actor, even if it meant standing in line for 90 minutes to get their autograph, was amazing to me – and admirable. The camaraderie among the attendees was so strong that I wished, for a split second, I had dressed up as Katniss so someone would give me a compliment or take a photo with me.
The passion at Comic Con was palpable and the event a complete fish-out-of-water experience. When I first entered the convention center, I said a little prayer of survival – get me through this so I can win Mother of the Year or “of the Day.” Yet I came away from ComiCon with a greater appreciation of the enthusiast/fan market and with a keener sense of what a passionate brand can lead people to do, say and wear. We often talk of Community in the sense of social media, but at Comic Con, the fans came face to face (or mask to mask) to be part of something big, to be the content and the entertainment. That’s Engagement in action. I thanked Max for taking me to ComiCon and he didn’t quite understand why I was thanking him. It was so out of character.
- Diane Schwartz
On Twitter: @dianeschwartz
I am among the unlucky who didn’t watch ‘Breaking Bad’ over the years and missed out on the binge-watching and chatter over Sunday’s finale. We must all make choices in our TV viewing and apparently I made a bad choice and there’s no going back to viewing all the seasons since I now know (spoiler alert!) that Walt dies in the finale.
The good news for PR peeps is you can break out of bad PR habits and live to tell your story. I am pretty sure most of you can’t personally relate to the list below, but in the interest of elevating the PR profession, here are some ideas for breaking bad PR:
1. Don’t email or call journalists you aren’t familiar with. Research their beats, recent articles they’ve written and their media outlet for relevance.
2. When being interviewed by the media, do not say “no comment.” Worse yet, don’t utter those words while chewing gum (really).
3. Your company is not “leading” and does not have the “number-one solution” – remove these and words like them from your press releases and web site.
4. Don’t do anything in PR that you can’t measure.
5. Don’t ask or ponder what the Barcelona Principles are (look them up, memorize them).
6. If your company is green or sustainable, make sure you can prove it.
7. The number of Twitter followers or Facebook likes for your brand is not commensurate with how wonderful your company is.
8. In a crisis, don’t think an apology is a sign of weakness.
9. Don’t hire bad writers.
10. Turn down clients that aren’t a good match for your firm. Likewise, for clients, don’t be afraid to break up with your agency if the relationship’s not working.
11. Don’t ever let someone call you a flack. PR deserves better.
I look forward to seeing your tips for breaking bad PR.
I picked up a sound piece of advice the other night, during a college admissions event my daughter and I attended. Among the questions the prospective students asked of the alumni panel was whether the class sizes are so big that you can’t see, hear and learn in them. The very articulate Class of 2010 alumnus responded with a great piece of advice that was applicable to me — and you, I imagine. She said: “Just sit in the front of the room.” (Ah, if only it were that easy. Especially in college, when you really aren’t sure if you’ll be staying for the whole class, and what about your friends who wouldn’t dare sit in the front row?)
The high school senior who asked the question nodded affirmatively, but you could see that the sound advice flowed right over her head. I believe she was hoping for a literal answer, such as “Yes, it sucks, but you deal with it.”
The takeaway for me was an affirmation that just changing where you sit changes your perspective, improves your visibility, eliminates distractions, and gets you noticed. To take the advice further, instead of sitting in the back of the room (or being anonymous in your organization, or among your customers), move yourself to get closer, to be seen, and to hear things more clearly. By sitting (or getting closer), you’ll pick up on details that could make a big difference in your viewpoint. Our marketplaces are bigger than any college classroom; if you’re in the way, way back then you’re missing out on the conversation.
I didn’t expect to learn much from this college event – it was really for my daughter, not me. Which shows you can learn some life lessons from unexpected places and times. Just sit closer, and listen.
PR Industry Missed an Opportunity During the Putin/Ketchum Op-Ed Episode to Talk About the Role of PR
Last week’s episode in which Ketchum helped place an op-ed piece by Russian President Vladimir Putin in The New York Times has shined a less-than-flattering spotlight on the PR profession.
In the Putin article, titled, “A Plea For Caution From Russia,” Putin seeks a solution to the violence in Syria. “Recent events have prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders,” Putin writes, adding that a U.S. strike against Syria “would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.”
Ketchum’s role in placing the op-ed was first reported by BuzzFeed.
According to Justice Department filings, Ketchum was reportedly paid $1.9 million by the Russian government during the first six months of this year. It got another $3.7 million for public relations work for Gazprom, the oil and gas company controlled by the Kremlin.
“The opinion piece was written by President Putin and submitted to The New York Times on his behalf by Ketchum for their consideration,” said Jackie Burton, Ketchum’s senior VP of external relations, in a statement.
She added, “Ketchum’s work with the Russian Federation began in 2006 during Russia’s Presidency of the G8 Summit that took place in St. Petersburg. Our role has continued, with a focus on facilitating the relationship between representatives of The Russian Federation and the western media.”
She would not comment any further on the op-ed piece in the Times.
However, I’m curious about the reaction to the letter within the PR industry, or, more precisely, the lack thereof.
Sure, I can easily picture communications professionals debating Ketchum’s role in placing Putin piece, and comments would likely range from whether Ketchum has set the PR industry back to defending the agency. What, exactly, does Ketchum have to apologize for?
But that’s inside baseball. What about the consumers who have been following the story? What was their takeaway from Ketchum acting on behalf of Putin? There are well-established perceptions about the moral ambiguities of PR. This underscores that perception—PR people serve as mouthpieces for anyone and they do it for a price.
The industry could have taken the window afforded by the Putin article to explain why Ketchum’s work on behalf of Russia is fair game in PR and address why some people may have a problem with it.
However, a spokeswoman for the Pubic Relations Society of America (PRSA) told PR News that the PRSA would have no comment on Ketchum’s action and is “neutral” on the subject.
That’s unfortunate, particularly in light of the negative impression many people already harbor about public relations.
The PRSA could have sent out a media advisory to broadcasters, media companies and publishers offering the industry’s perspective on the Ketchum episode. It also could have provided some context about PR compared with other marketing disciplines, such as advertising.
That opportunity is now lost. The chance to explain to the world why PR does what it does is lost. The chance to talk about what PR is and how it’s changing and work to correct inaccurate stereotypes about the PR field is gone.
Responding to the episode could have changed the narrative about PR, however slightly. But now the song will remain the same. Until the next dustup, that is.
Follow Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1
When UPS wanted to make the public aware of its sustainability and energy-saving practices, the PR team knew it needed to tell an interesting story to showcase its efforts. It has always stuck with me that UPS drivers don’t make left turns (or at least, 95% of the time, they don’t turn left). By turning right and not idling, UPS has been able to cut CO2 emissions by 100,000 metric tons and has saved 10 million gallons of fuel since 2004. The media loves stories like these, and I bet every company has a story to tell that’s illustrative and memorable. The hard part, it turns out, is not in identifying your story but in telling it smartly to the media. There are so many things that can go wrong on the road to positive coverage.
Jerry Doyle of CommCore Consulting Group spends most of his days training C-suite execs and PR pros on how to talk to the media, how to tell a story that resonates and how to stay on message. At a PR News Media Training Workshop in NY on Sept 10, he reiterated the importance of sticking to your message while respecting the reporter’s time and intelligence. He asked the workshop attendees: “What do you do when a reporter asks you a question?” So many times, the interviewee changes the topic, or veers in another direction instead of actually answering the question. When you don’t answer the question, says Doyle, “it’s a tell” – in other words, skeptical journalists get more skeptical and the questions harden.
In preparing for your next media interview, keep these tips in mind:
- Always be tuned into WIIFM: “what’s in it for me” (the reporter and his/her audience): make your comments relevant to the interview and compelling to the audience.
- Pick a message/point and state it 3 times during the interview: any less or any more than that and your message will get lost.
- Research the reporter before the interview: who is she, what does she cover, what were her last 3 stories?
- Google yourself and your company: that’s what the reporter is doing before the interview, so don’t be caught off-guard by recent coverage of your company (or you).
- Assume you’ll be asked difficult questions: be prepared to answer them.
- Tell a story or provide an analogy: nothing’s better than a short, interesting story to illustrate your point, and for complicated issues a simple analogy is much appreciated by the reporter.
- Always answer the question: Better to say “I will look into that” than “no comment”.
- Have a bridging strategy: at times, you’ll need to bridge the conversation to get to your point. Practice bridging.
- Make sure your last words are good ones: often the last question is the reporter’s lead, the sound bite on TV or the most memorable answer, so make sure you end the interview on your high note.
A reporter is usually not trying to stump you, but no reporter worth his salt is going to throw softballs throughout the interview. If you can master the 9 tips above, you and your brand won’t suffer a black eye.
- Diane Schwartz, @dianeschwartz
When I was a child, my mother always corrected me when I used the word “uh” and “like,” as in the sentence, “Uh, I am not sure, like I really want to do this but I don’t know how.” I have made up that sentence for great effect (hopefully) to illustrate how uneducated one can sound when using unnecessary, filler words. Kids can get away with “um” and “like” and “you know” – then one day, kids become directors, managers, account executives, spokespeople, and colleagues in a professional environment. What you say and how you say it starts to matter. Whereas a mother would implore her child to not use “uh” and the child will roll his eyes and still say it, it’s unlikely your boss or your colleague will correct your language. It would just seem rude and make you feel bad. So you are left to your own devices, to self-correct. How many times in a given day do you think you fill your dialogue with these words:
- You Know
- Ta (a mangled variation of “to”)
- Honestly (as in “Honestly, what I think you need to do)
- I mean
The last word I’d like to bring to your attention is “but”. It’s a fine word and grammatically acceptable. But it’s ripe with nuance. Try, for a day, to replace the word “but” with “and”. I bet you will come across as kinder and less contrary. Consider these possibly familiar exchanges:
“I just read your report and found it very interesting. It’s well-written and thought-out. But you are missing a key idea.”
An alternative without “but”:
“I just read your report and found it very interesting. It’s well-written and thought-out and if we were to add a few more sentences on (fill in the blank), it would be ready to distribute.”
Response: “Great! Thank you!”
“How does this outfit look on me?”
Response: “It looks nice, but you might want to loosen the belt.”
An alternative without “but”:
“How does this outfit look on me?”
Response: “It looks nice, and I like the shoes, too!”
Try replacing the word “but” with “and”. It may do wonders for your relationships, you know?
Are there are other “filler” words that should be added to this list? Please chime in.
- Diane Schwartz
Let’s assume that your press release landed in the right in-box, meaning the reporter is the right target for your message. For anyone in public relations, just getting to this point is a major achievement. But don’t get all cocky, because what comes next is critical. As a reporter by trade and one who still receives roughly 25 press releases per day in my in-box, I can tell you that a great press release is hard to find.
Reporters do not have a love-hate relationship with press releases. They have a “meh” relationship with them. Most of the press releases reporters receive are not going to rock their world. But they will be read and used by a reporter if they contain a news hook that is relevant to the reporter’s beat. Once hooked at least on the topic, a great press release will contain:
1. An attention-grabbing headline.
2. A “nut graph” to kill for: the first paragraph with 2 to 3 sentences must be succinct and newsworthy. Much like a reporter’s own article.
3. Multimedia: photos, video and the like – a must-have for multimedia journalists, which most reporters are, whether they like it or not.
4. Good contact information – not just contact information, but the contacts of people who will answer the phone and respond within the hour to your email query.
5. A great quote - The art of press release quote-writing involves giving the end reader the impression that the reporter got the quote directly from the source, not from the press release.
6. Statistics and other data – reporters love numbers, which make their stories more credible and interesting, and which impresses their editors.
7. A compelling story (more on that in a second).
You’ve heard countless advice on words to avoid in press releases, such as “leading”, “ground-breaking” and “best.” A Reporter’s Bullshit Meter will ring loudly at the sight of these words, and there’s no doubt your press release will be diminished. I won’t belabor the point. But I encourage anyone who writes a press release to get real about who’s reading your prose and how credible your words are. You’d be surprised how many reporters stop reading a press release if there are too many superlatives.
At PR News’ PR Writing Workshop this week in San Francisco, there was agreement that a press release has roughly 7 seconds to grab a reporter’s attention. Seven seconds is widely touted as the time it takes to make a first impression. So, next time you go about writing your press release, apply the 7 second principle.
Then, consider, what would come next? Does your press release have the qualities that will entice the reporter to email or call you? And are you ready to take the story that was the crux of your press release, and continue telling that story?
While it’s always great to see your press release “covered” by the media in the fullest sense of the word – the press release is essentially re-run as editorial or portions cut and pasted — it is much better to create a connection and entice the reporter to hear more of your story. If the press release is your first impression, then the follow-up call or email is your opportunity to tell your story. The press release is an under-rated story-telling vehicle and you are in the driver’s seat.
– Diane Schwartz
Whether you’re a Harry Potter fan or not, you know who J.K. Rowling is. I bet you never heard of Robert Galbraith or “The Cuckoo’s Calling” until it was revealed on Monday that Robert is Rowling and that “Cuckoo” is about….
Forget what the book is about – the news here is that Rowling penned the book under a male pseudonym and a reporter for the London Sunday Times revealed this past week that she was the author. The second of Rowling’s adult novels, this one was well received by critics but sold only 1,500 copies since its April release. That is about 450 million less copies than her Harry Potter books. Unsurprisingly, since the big reveal, sales of “Cuckoo’s Calling” have increased 500% and it’s near the top of Amazon’s best-seller list.
Rowling told The Times of London that the experience was worthwhile: “I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer, because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience. It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”
The skeptic in me (and it’s a big part of me) says this was magnificently orchestrated by Rowling and her publisher. After basking in the glow of every single Harry Potter book, then writing adult fiction (“The Casual Vacancy” that can best be described as “meh”) what’s a famous author to do other than test a new genre and gauge public reaction without exposing her true identity? She knew that a good number of Muggles would gravitate to a crime mystery “Cuckoo’s Calling” written by a certain J.K. Rowling.
These shenanigans got me thinking about whether I would go incognito to test a wild idea, start down a new career path or pen a ground-breaking manifesto. Let’s assume I’m a well-known person with a tremendous following (neither is true). And I am sick and tired of the “hype” and “expectation.” Would I have the courage of my conviction and let the chips fall where they may? Or would I come up with a new pen name (just as Rowling, and Stephen King, Anne Rice and others before them) and time the unmasking and glorious hype just so?
I’d like to think I’d use my real identity. But it’s hard to imagine the kind of success that allows the freedom to choose and the preordained acceptance of that choice.
What would you do?
- Diane Schwartz
On Twitter: @dianeschwartz
The ugly story of Aaron Hernandez raises again the issue of perception challenges in big-time sports, both on the professional and collegiate levels, and it’s worth some time thinking about how we got here.
We’re a sports-obsessed culture. Always have been. It goes way back in the country’s psyche. I recently read a book called “Crazy ‘08: How a Cast of Boneheads, Rogues and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History.”
You might think it was about 2008, and Alex Rodriguez, Brian Wilson (the San Francisco Giants closer with the long dyed-black beard), and George Steinbrenner.
But it was really about the 1908 season, when America was equally baseball crazy.
Then there’s the long history of idolizing college football players like Red Grange, George Gipp (Ronald Reagan made Knute Rockne’s phrase “Win one for the Gipper” famous) and Notre Dame’s 1924 “Four Horsemen.”
Going back even further than that, baseball became a national sport during the Civil War, when soldiers from all over the country were introduced to it and in the years after the war spread it to the four corners of the nation.
This explains why we revere sports institutions and athletes. But we give them a pass way too often. We create a hothouse environment where a sense of entitlement reigns, where cheaters are celebrated, where criminals are excused, where the money is huge, and where institutions like the Penn State football program end up driving university policy, not the other way around.
In what other context would someone like Ray Lewis, recently retired from the Baltimore Ravens, be considered the face of a business?
Big-time sports are popular, but also tarnished. And they have the power, when they run amok, to tarnish other brands, like the universities that lend their names to sports programs. After Hernandez’s arrest last month for murder, new light was cast on his time at the University of Florida, when 25 players were arrested a total of 31 times during the tenure of coach Urban Meyer, a period when the team won two national championships.
Are championships worth more than character and reputation? It appears so, and while Hernandez and others must face the consequences for their alleged actions, the system collectively really is to blame. Here are some suggestions on how to fix things.
1. Make use of performance-enhancing drugs a career ender. Baseball, especially, has a huge problem, mostly because it turned a two-decade-long blind eye on the problem while gladly raking in the revenue generated during the steroid era.
2. Pay college athletes. This will go a long way toward eliminating the mostly false notion of the “student athlete.” If the athlete is selected based on raw economics, overlooking character will be less likely.
3. Do a much better job to acknowledge and explain the role athletics plays in college finances. This will mitigate the excessive influence that boosters play, and also help schools from a public relations standpoint. Incredibly, in 40 of the 50 states, the highest paid state employee is either the football or basketball coach. That made major headlines a few months ago. The reaction was largely indignation. Put aside questions about terribly misplaced priorities, however, and you really can justify those salaries based on the economics—who brings more revenue to a school (and thus helps fund important academic initiatives) than the coach of a successful sports program?
4. Don’t play the victim, as Bob Kraft, who owns the New England Patriots, did when he recently said that the team was “duped,” by Aaron Hernandez. Own the mistake. And communicate to the public how you’re going to do everything possible to avoid the same mistake in the future.
Tony Silber: @tonysilber
As any PR pro can tell you, it’s all in the timing.
Whether it’s when you reach a reporter just as he’s in the thick of a story for which your brand can provide some much-needed insight or launch a PR campaign that attaches itself to the zeitgeist, timing is everything.
This applies to both business and life, for better or for worse. My timing to spend a few days on the beach last week, for example, didn’t work out too well. A valiant effort to simply embed myself in the sand and watch the sky roll by was thwarted by swirling gray clouds and a constant threat of showers.
What are you going to do?
Fortunately, there’s still a good chunk of summer left to get in some quality beach time and hit the waves (I’m an avid swimmer). But even if the weather doesn’t cooperate it doesn’t hurt to crack open a cold drink and settle down with a good beach read.
Indeed, with communicators more pressed for time than ever, we recommend several beach books that can help inform you about the ever-morphing world of media, marketing and communications, but also entertain and enlighten.
> Youtility: Why Smart Marketing Is about Help Not Hype, by Jay Baer
Baer, who has worked with top brands ranging from Nike to Walmart, explores how an age-old expression—Can I help you?—has taken on new meaning in a social marketing age.
> Edelman and the Rise of Public Relations, by Franz Wisner
This e-book offers a comprehensive history of the first family of public relations and the accompanying rise of the PR field. In 1952 Dan Edelman, who died in January, founded what is now the largest independent PR agency in the world, with 67 offices and more than 4,800 employees.
> Rethinking Reputation: How PR Trumps Marketing and Advertising in the New Media World, by Fraser P. Seitel and John Doorley
PR expert Fraser Seitel and John Doorley, founder of the Academy for Communication Excellence and Leadership at Johnson & Johnson, provide some crucial guidelines on how PR pros can navigate their brands through the new (and tricky) media landscape.
> The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career, by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha
We’re all start-up companies now. Even if you work in an office ladled with the traditional accoutrements of corporate America, getting ahead in today’s world requires individuals to invest in themselves and their skill sets.
> Audience Evolution: New Technologies and the Transformation of Media Audiences, by Philip Napoli
Ever get the feeling that we’re just a few codes away from transcending the space-time continuum? This book takes a look at the tremendous influence modern technology has on the media and the radical changes in how people consume media.
> The Fall of Advertising and The Rise of PR, by Al Ries, Laura Ries.
Advertising used to be the lord of the manor but in the new media world PR has become king of the castle. The Ries’ make convincing argument that in order to boost their credibility with consumers, companies need to drive the overall message with PR and have advertising, er, paid media, play a subordinate role.
Any titles you think we should add to the list?
Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1