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
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.