There are countless communications takeaways from the recent celebrity gaffes. Whether it’s Paula Deen dealing with allegations of being a racist and then dropped like a buttered sweet potato by every brand partner, or Jennifer Lopez singing “Happy Birthday” to Turkmenistan’s authoritarian ruler for his 56th birthday last Saturday night, one thing is for sure: another day, another blunder by a celebrity or public figure.
Is the PR team to blame for either of these crises — or is it to be sympathized with? After all, wrangling bosses with high stature and over-sized egos to do and say what you advise is not kid’s play. You win some, you lose some. In the Paula Deen and J.Lo cases, I take the side that PR could have done a better job of doing their job. Public Relations is not just about pitching stories to the media (which is what most of the public thinks) – it’s about improving or maintaining reputations, shaping messages, avoiding crises, moving a brand forward, managing expectations, and so much more.
PR could have shined in both these crises – resulting in another needed feather in the PR cap. (Notably, there are hundreds of crises every day that never see the light of media because PR is in fact doing its job.)
Because too much has already been written and said about Paula Deen, I will keep this one simple: PR counselors can’t make their clients less racist, but a strategic and strong PR counsel can guide their client to take the right steps to mitigate crisis, to apologize, to articulate how he or she will make amends. Instead, we hear Deen utter: “I is what I is” and we hear her challenging people to throw stones at her head if they weren’t guilty as well of saying mean things. Even before getting into crisis management mode, shouldn’t Deen’s PR team have seen this coming? Did they have a seat at any of Deen’s many tables, guiding her on public perception, listening to what her employees were saying and feeling? It was a public secret that Deen used the “N-word” often.
From Savannah to the Central Asian country of Turkmenistan we have another situation that will predictably be less of a long-term problem for the celebrity. J.Lo was the guest of a China National Petroleum Corp. event in Turkmenistan when she was asked to sing “Happy Birthday” to that country’s leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. J.Lo’s spokesman, Mark Young, told the New York Post: “Had there been knowledge of human-rights issues of any kind, Jennifer would not have attended” the birthday party. Um, Google or Bing “Turkmenistan” and you’ll find that Human Rights Watch lists it “among the most repressive” countries in the world. As my PR News colleague Lucia Davis writes on prnewsonline, this crisis, too, could have been avoided.
The whole situation was made worse by J.Lo’s team members’ enthusiasm for being at this event, with her choreographer cluelessly tweeting: “The Turkmenistan breeze feels amazing at night, kidz! I wonder where all my Turkmenistan followers are!? Hit me up!” Perhaps the people of this land can’t follow him on Tweeter because, according to Human Rights Watch, “The Turkmen government exercises total control of public life.”
In my 18 years in the PR space, one of the most basic pieces of advice volleyed between media and PR people has been to “do your homework.” PR people shouldn’t pitch stories to reporters without knowing what and whom they cover. And reporters should respect PR’s role in the ecosystem, whether it’s a political, entertainment, business or nonprofit story, and should come into the interview knowing a thing or two about their subject. Had J.Lo’s team done its homework, it would have easily discovered that even showing up for an event honoring a repressive world leader is ill-advised. Singing “Happy Birthday” was just icing on the stinking cake. Had Paula Deen’s PR team done a listening tour of the people closest to her empire – such as her employees – they could have put measures in place to avoid the downward spiral.
Summer’s here, school is out, but we will always have our homework to do.
- Diane Schwartz
My son Max tells very long stories that veer in curious directions. By the time he’s nearing the point, he forgets the ending. It’s rather cute and endearing – he is, after all, only 12 years old. He will sometimes exclaim frustratingly: “I forgot what I was going to say!” Can we admit that often it’s as if a 12-year-old is telling a story about his brand? And we aren’t as forgiving, are we?
Storytelling in PR comes in many forms: press releases, emails, memos, phone calls, meetings, press conferences, interviews. Our stakeholders have short attention spans and are less charitable about seeing through the foggy messages. They are not our parents, who will listen to our stories and love us even more for the muddled storytelling. No, stakeholders will send you on your merry way, and latch on to a better story.
Like you and me, our audiences like a story that has heart, that makes us think and moves us in some way. A few days ago, I heard about Pedigree’s partnership with “Annie” on Broadway and the search for a shelter dog to play Sandy. The story is heart-warming and memorable, and makes me want to buy Pedigree dog food and see Annie for the umpteenth time. The story had emotion.
It’s the communicator’s role to find the compelling story in the message and then make it stick. At PR News’ Content Marketing Boot Camp on Tuesday, one speaker noted that “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” That’s a catchy reminder, but even in the age of social media and attention deficits, your story must be authentic, true to your brand’s story line and characters.
The best stories spread, then stick and, most importantly, result in a positive action or reaction. In other words, sticky can sometimes be stinky. Which leads me to my last point: know what to leave out of a story. Every brand and company is filled with stories. Not all of those stories should be told. Curate your stories, identify the narrative and figure out what’s better left unsaid. Not every story is worth repeating. Unless it’s about your kids.
- Diane Schwartz
By now you’ve heard the news that Adam Levine hates his country. No, he loves his country. Wait a minute: what does he really feel and why do we care? If “The Voice” coach and Maroon Five singer truly hated America, the worst that could happen is he gets kicked off “The Voice” and his band suffers in the Apple store.
For communications professionals, Adam Levine’s gut response, “I hate this country” made after two of his singers got voted off “The Voice” on Tuesday night, is an example of public figures saying something stupid for a split second. That’s all it takes, a split second, for a quote to go viral and escalate to a top story. The public and media know a great sound bite when they hear it, especially surprising when it comes out of the mouths of generally well-liked, behaving celebrities.
What PR advice would you give Adam? Here are some steps Adam has already taken and that he might want to consider over the next 48 hours:
Respond via social media. On his Twitter handle, he tweeted definitions of “humorless,” “joke,” “misunderstand” and “lighthearted.” His fans are on Twitter, so responding to them in a less conspicuous manner was the right move.
Issue a statement. That he did:
“I obviously love my country very much and my comments last night were made purely out of frustration. Being a part of The Voice, I am passionately invested in my team and want to see my artists succeed. Last night’s elimination of Judith and Sarah was confusing and downright emotional for me and my comments were made based on my personal dissatisfaction with the results. I am very connected to my artists and know they have long careers ahead, regardless of their outcome on the show.”
Ride it out. This too shall be passed over by other non-important news. Justin Bieber continues to behave badly, Arrested Development is back and Beyonce might be having another baby.
Be more careful. That microphone works, Adam. Think before you speak into it.
Here are things Adam shouldn’t do in the next 48 hours:
> Wear red, white and blue.
> Get a tattoo of the U.S. flag on his wrist (wait at least a year).
> Write a song about patriotism.
> Become the spokesperson for the Armed Forces.
> Step down from “The Voice.”
And, for the producers of “The Voice,” enjoy the boost in ratings.
- Diane Schwartz
Earlier this week I noticed this tweet from Business Insider’s Henry Blodget:
“RT @SullyCNBC: I’ve interviewed many successful people over the years. Many began with nothing. ALL shared one trait—optimism.”
Blodget, of course, was retweeting a comment by CNBC’s Brian Sullivan, whose tweet sparked a conversation among his followers and was retweeted more than 30 times.
Later that day I saw this report on Gawker, a video called “This is Water,” tied to the audio of a 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College by the late novelist David Foster Wallace. The speech is about empathy, and perseverance, and outlook on life and career. It’s inspiring and well worth listening to.
Both the tweet from Blodget and the Gawker story got me thinking about the notion of optimism in marketing and communications. That simple concept—a worldview, a sense of the glass being half full—is a powerful tool, and one that people tend to underestimate. People respond to optimism in very real ways. Of course, when you talk about optimism, you can also get very new age-y, but that’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about how an intangible thing—an attitude or approach—can be converted to very real, tangible results, in both careers and communications.
Consider this report on the declining deficit, and how all the U.S. economy needs to take off is a sense of optimism.
Or this one, where a sense of optimism among global business executives led to their believing that their marketing efforts and sales would improve.
So why is it, then, that the pessimists and the cynics often have the aura of credibility? Even in Blodget’s Twitter conversation, someone said that on Wall Street, the bears are viewed as the smart ones. But data, and plenty of examples in the field of communications suggest that optimism is a legitimate PR strategy. Take this study by Margaret Greenberg, president of a Connecticut consulting firm, and Dana Arakawa, who, with Greenberg, is a graduate of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania.
The report showed that optimistic managers are more likely to be engaged managers, who are more likely to engage employees; engaged employees, in turn, are more optimistic and productive than disengaged employees, and their increased productivity increases profitability.
A report in PR News illustrates the point: Maytag, in the middle of a product recall, launched a Facebook page with the explicit objective of turning negative feedback into positive dialogue. The result? The Maytag Facebook page went from 400 disenchanted fans to 42,000 fans (at of the time of our report).
• Throughout the period analyzed, engagement spiked by 4,000%.
• Maytag’s “Big Game” sweepstakes increased likes by 5,000 and ultimately began the wave of engagement.
• The “Faces” gallery received more than 12,000 submissions.
• Money wrote an article that mentioned a positive customer service interaction on Maytag’s Facebook page.
The takeaway for PR pros? It’s simple: build a campaign (and a career) through a positive outlook, an empathetic approach and an optimistic demeanor, and watch as markets and stakeholders respond with increased engagement. Everyone wants to associate with a contented person and a positive vibe.
There you are, reporting to your CEO on the outcome of a recent PR campaign you spearheaded. Your excitement is contagious as the CEO wants to know more about the positive tone, product awareness and visual dimensions, more about your company’s share of voice and the way you were able to tie sales to the efforts. He asks you what the ad equivalency would be for this PR campaign and you explain, patiently, that AVEs are not how we measure anymore; that’s for amateurs. You refer a few times to the Barcelona Principles, but you had him at “awareness.”
Measurement is the new black. Those who measure their PR understand the profound impact the activity can have on a company’s brand and bottom line. Measurement experts go far in their career because they have gained a keener understanding of their activities by tracking what’s important and by dispensing of activities that bear either no fruit or rotten fruit. One of the best indicators of an organization’s support of the PR department is its investment in measurement and its willingness to listen to the results (however tough they may be) and heed PR’s counsel.
What used to be cordoned off as the geeky discipline within PR, measurement and research is now integrated into everything communicators do. Or it should be. Whether it’s measuring the impact of a tweet or analyzing the performance of a year-long community relations effort, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.
In a recent PR News/CARMA survey, roughly 10 percent of respondents admitted they don’t typically set objectives for some campaigns and don’t measure social media, and nearly 64% still use clip counts more than other metrics. And surprisingly, 32% said the primary reason they measure is because their boss or senior management requires it. Until we get the 32% of PR pros to measure because they want to be better at PR and until we get 100% of communicators setting real objectives, then we are not done with evangelizing the power of measurement.
- Diane Schwartz
PS: At PR News, we are bringing hundreds of communicators to the National Press Club on May 15 for our annual PR Measurement Conference. We’ll share measurement tips, tactics, war stories and advice. Hope you can join us for this “sexy” event. I hope you’ll join us. Email me your hot-button measurement questions to pose to the speakers at email@example.com.
The Grateful Dead, the Grandaddy of jam-band music, called it quits in 1995 soon after the death of lead guitarist (and first among equals) Jerry Garcia. The Dead’s 30-year run, which included nearly 2,300 concerts and a unique musical styling best described as “electric Dixieland,” is safely ensconced in the annals of Rock and roll history.
But the Dead’s legacy carries on through Furthur, which was founded in 2009 by Dead frontmen Bob Weir and Phil Lesh. Similar to the Dead—a pioneer in “social marketing” before the term existed—Furthur offers PR and marketing execs a string of lessons on how to sustain your audience and grow your brand.
As I traveled up and down the Northeast corridor in the last two weeks to catch a couple of Furthur shows during its spring tour, I thought about what communicators could learn from the band:
> Respect your audience: Furthur communicates strictly through its music. Aside from Weir or Lesh saying, “We’re going to take a short break,” at the end of the first set or “Good night,” after the encore, the band doesn’t kibitz with the audience but provides them with three-plus hour of music, which is what people actually paid for. Regardless of your market, don’t distract your audience with peripheral and/or disposable information, but the content that means the most to people.
> Don’t repeat the same content over and over: While most musical artists have a cookie-cutter approach to their concerts (same set lists, same notes and even the same guitar solos in the same slot), Furthur never performs the same show twice. The band is constantly adding (and subtracting) to its song repertoire and developing new musical arrangements, which keep fans guessing. Indeed, to keep your fans engaged don’t rely on the same material but find new PR vehicles to keep your overall message fresh (without having to reinvent the wheel).
> Use your company’s operation as a vehicle for charitable efforts: At every show and just before the encore Phil Lesh makes an impassioned plea for people to become organ donors; in 1998 Lesh underwent a liver transplant as a result of chronic hepatitis C infection. Lesh’s donor crusade is a reminder for brands that, in order for their charitable effort to truly resonate with audiences, the effort has to hit close to home and provide a personal connection to the chairman, CEO or company founder, for example. This way, the effort comes off as the real deal and not something the company is doing just for the sake of doing so.
> Nurture the newbies: Along with Lesh and Weir, Furthur includes drummer Joe Russo and lead guitarist John Kadlecik, who are considerably younger than Lesh and Weir. While Lesh and Weir ultimately call the shots onstage, Russo and Kadlecik are given a wide berth for musical improvisation and exploration. That’s something that should hardly be lost on grizzled PR veterans: Hire younger people who love your brand and are comfortable with your corporate culture, but not so comfortable that they fail to bring new ideas to the table and alternative ways of cultivating your audience, er, fans.
What do you think your favorite band can teach us about PR?
Follow Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1
Oscar Wilde once said that the “question often arrives a terribly long time after the answer.” For sure, asking the right questions early and often is the answer to a lot of problems we face as communicators. Inundated with projects, challenges, crises, pitches and meetings, we are easily seduced by the sirens of Completion: get it done, no tough questions asked. Throughout your week, you are inherently set up to ask tough questions. How often do you ask the right ones, however difficult the answers might be?
Below, I’ve started a list of key topics and questions to ask in your PR life. Please add to it – what do you have to lose?
* A PR Campaign: Can it be measured and what will the key performance indicators be?
* Interviewing your Next PR Star: What’s your best mistake and why?
* Choosing a PR Firm: Whom will I be working with day to day and what’s his/her experience?
* Choosing a Client: Are their expectations realistic and will we click on a human level?
* Forging a Nonprofit/Charitable Partnership: Does this organization align with my company’s goals and do we have time for this?
* Your Team: Whom can I recognize today for a job a well done?
* Your Customers: How can I “wow” them this week?
* Pushing a Viewpoint: Is it really worth pursuing?
* Managing a Crisis: Who is affected by this crisis, and what’s the worst that could happen?
* Social Media: Do we really need to be on this platform? If yes, why? If not, let’s not waste precious time.
* The Media: What great story do I have to tell and why should they care?
I look forward to your contributions to this list!
- Diane Schwartz
The death of your brand: have you ever thought about it? Have you considered the implications of its demise, for better or worse? What might be lost in the marketplace of ideas, products or services if your brand no longer existed?
Excuse my pessimism, but it might be time to think about your brand’s vanishing act.
We often hold post-mortems on projects, events or campaigns to determine what went right and wrong. Then we go back to our desks, the criticisms and accolades tucked into a corner of our brain for use next time around. We may also discuss the “banana peels” leading up to a campaign or event – where might we slip and how we can avoid it. But have you ever brought your team and customers together and asked them this question: If our brand no longer existed, what would you miss most?
Go ahead: envision the death of your brand, or, worse yet, of your company or agency. Imagine its non-existence.
Would customers revolt? Would they be screaming on social media in a Veronica Mars/Arrested Development sort of way to bring your brand back? If you’re a PR firm, would your clients’ reputations go downhill fast and would their own companies hit a wall because your firm is no longer counseling them?
Would customers send you letters begging for you to bring the brand or product back to the marketplace? Do they need your product so much that without it they are a wreck, either emotionally, physically, academically or financially?
With your product dead, would customers flock to your competitors and get on with life just fine?
Would there be a deafening silence: no one complaining, no one missing the uniqueness of your brand? Worse yet, no one even noticed you were gone until they read the obituary?
Before you make the next move with your brand, have your employees and customers fill in the blank: If this brand went away, I would _____________.
How they fill in the blank may be the key to your survival.
Why are so many of us addicted to “The Voice”? For me, it’s not because I am constantly reminded of what a poor singer I am. I have my kids to remind me of that. Why I like “The Voice” over other reality shows has more to do with the mix of great singers, charismatic judges and weekly lessons in finding something nice to say over and over to countless strangers.
At PR News, we find there’s a PR angle to every story, to every brand, to every situation. In the case of “The Voice,” I want to share a few take-aways for anyone who spends their day in communications and management.
Listen. Sometimes you need to remove your sense of vision and all the biases that come with it. You just might look at someone differently and hear something you never expected. While I don’t recommend turning your chair around in a meeting and closing your eyes, a keen focus on listening will help you hear a message loud and a clear.
Diversify. When putting together a team, mix it up. “The Voice” judges choose a wide array of talented contestants for their teams; Blake isn’t choosing all country singers and Usher isn’t picking all hip-hop singers. They are looking for that X factor, for people with potential and by choosing a diverse group of singers they are hedging their bets.
Encourage. Notice how the judges are so darn nice to every contestant. They find something encouraging to say to those who aren’t chosen this time – in normal parlance known as “losers”. The judges don’t criticize. They implore the contestants to work on one or two weaknesses and invite them to try again.
Laugh. When there’s chemistry among a small team – such as with Shakira, Adam, Usher and Blake – laughter ensues. Take time to find the humor in your day. Something has to be funny.
Be Real. There’s one aspect of “The Voice” and with many reality shows that irk me and possibly you too: the supposed live tweets as we’re watching the show. You’d have to be a fool to believe there isn’t a ghost tweeter for each of the judges. The second a contestant wins or loses, we see a tweet from the judges as if they are telepathically sending a message to their iphone to tweet a sentiment. C’mon, we’re smarter than that (right?). When you like a brand as much as I like “The Voice” and you feel the judges are otherwise authentic, the fake tweets can sour the experience. Just show the viewers’ tweets on the screen – after all, we need a voice too.
Welcome to the Yottabyte Era.
Yottabyte, which is equal to one quadrillion gigabytes, is the term to describe the next frontier of data technology. We’re now in the so-called Exabyte. Before that we had Terabyte and Petabyte eras.
However you define the amount of data that’s at the disposal of PR and marketing professionals, the volume is mind-boggling.
“There’s no escaping the fact the velocity is ridiculous,” said Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at MIT’s Center for Digital Business, who delivered a keynote speech last week at Arthur W. Page Society’s spring meeting. “It’s not just that there’s a lot of data, and it’s not just that it’s hitting us quickly; it’s coming from a range of different sources and a lot of them are weird and new and, by our old standards, they’re kind of ragged and unpleasant to look at it.”
The speech, titled “Understanding Big Data,” underscored the growing onus on PR professionals to get a handle on the “Big Data” that is increasingly at the heart of online communications.
“The conversations around the things that we’re interested in are becoming more data-driven, certainly not overnight [and] certainly not exclusively data driven,” McAfee said to an audience of senior-level PR execs attending the meeting. “But we’re heading in this direction and I don’t see us going back the other way, simply because the truth is in the data and the tools are becoming more widespread.”
He added: “Are you and your organizations ready for this kind of change, or are you going to continue to pretend that these issues aren’t out there, and continue to operate and communicate as if you’re in a small-data world? I think that would be a very poor strategy.”
Call it the revenge of the left-brain, in which in order to succeed PR pros must increasingly adopt a “coldly logical” way of assessing information and data, possibly at the expense of more creative endeavors (right-brain).
One solution is for PR pros to develop a “geek map,” or create robust strategies for online communications and social media that stem from data, according to Suzy DeFrancis, chief public affairs officer at the American Red Cross.
“If a 130-year-old organization like the American Red Cross can jump into social data and big data, anybody can do it,” said DeFrancis, who was part of a panel discussion at the conference titled, “Putting Big Data to Work.”
DeFrancis discussed how, via its digital operations center, the American Red Cross was able to harness Big Data to inform the public (and to provide assistance) during Hurricane Sandy last October.
“This was the first disaster where we really saw the ability to put data we were acquiring from the pubic into action,” she said. “It no longer became something in the communications department, it became something that we were using for our operations.”
The challenge for PR pros is paramount: Embrace Big Data and invest in the tools that will help communicators make sense of all the content that’s informing their markets and messages. It’s an opportunity that, if Arthur W. Page Society’s spring meeting is any indication, could make or break the future prospects of public relations.
Follow Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1