The story about the little engine that could is a familiar and heart-warming one, a tale of a determined underdog fulfilling a difficult task against all odds. “I think I can, I think I can” is a commonly used refrain at challenging moments.
Sometimes, though, we might be stronger to think we can’t. To admit, “I think I can’t. I think I can’t” and to seek help.
This idea was brought to light last week during PR News’ Top Women in PR Awards ceremony when keynoter JJ Ramberg, host of MSBNC’s Your Business, reminded an audience of high achievers to ask for help without the fear of reprisal or embarrassment. The women who make up our 2015 class of top female communicators are a determined group that can relate to the little engine that took on the challenge of taking a stranded train over the hill while the bigger, more able locomotives refused.
I’m fairly certain that leaders of either gender know they can’t do everything well and will seek assistance every now and then. Aside from having mentors to guide us, it’s imperative that we as communicators are also able to communicate our (momentary) weaknesses and our need for assistance. To occasionally ask for help from colleagues, peers, friends and new-found business connections is to acknowledge our limits, to learn from the assistance we receive and to pay it forward.
The next time you think you’re the little engine that could or the big engine that should, consider your options. Could you use a little help?
– Diane Schwartz
When a Florida sheriff’s office recently noticed its new crest-engraved office rug read “In Dog We Trust,” rather than “In God We Trust” it turned a $500 typo into a nearly $10k opportunity. It held an auction for the grammatically incorrect rug in which proceeds would go to the local animal rescue organization. If we could raise $9,650 (which the sheriff’s office did) for every typo, grammatical error and poor turn of phrase, bad writing and editing could actually be spun into a rather beneficial side business. Alas, poor writing or sloppy editing persists among the best brands and among the best of us. It just happens. But we can do better.
It certainly doesn’t look good for communicators when a press release is riddled with errors, when an email to a reporter is lacking punctuation and clarity or when a business memo is strung together with disparate ideas and fails to cut to the chase. Spell-check cannot save a poor communicator.
There are a few quick fixes to our post-college national writing problem:
Find an Editor: Someone on your team should serve as your editor. Never let a press release go on the wires or an important document be distributed without another set of eyes. Don’t just have anyone edit your copy – identify strong writers who have a discerning eye. Just as importantly, track the changes your editor makes so you can see for yourself what is being changed and understand your writing weaknesses.
Read Two Great Articles a Day: Whether online or in print, read something in the news or within your markets and observe how the writer grabs your interest in the first 15 seconds and how the article articulates its main points and concludes the piece. You are reading a great story, and as a storyteller you can be as interesting as that journalist.
Let Your Best Work Marinate: By this I mean don’t rush your messaging. You need to let your writing evolve over the course of a few hours or even a few days. Come back to the piece and you will always find it needs polishing and you will embrace the act of polishing because a sparkling piece of work will get noticed.
Elevator Pitches Have Legs: Sometimes an overused reference is overused because it works. If you think in terms of how you’d convey to a colleague the main points of your press release, your content marketing piece, your client email on an elevator ride from the lobby to the 10th floor, what would you say? What you come up with forms the headline and lead and helps crystallize your message. Elevator pitches get easier the more you choose to take the ride. Which leads me to the last piece of advice:
Write Your Heart Out: While writing well is not yet a lost art, the less we write complete sentences (thank you, texting!) and the less we hold up great PR writing as a benchmark of communications excellence, the more likely we are to lose ground with our stakeholders. Take your writing seriously. Craft something interesting every day. And prepare to be edited. It’s part of the writing process.
- Diane Schwartz
PS: Check out our PR News Writing Workshop on Feb 10 in San Fran. I hope you’ll be able to attend!
A while back I compiled a list of annoying phrases and words we utter as communicators (and human beings), from “at the end of the day” to “guru” and “epic”. The list, via my blog post, grew as you added your own phrases that annoy (“I don’t hate that” and “synergy,” to name a few).
When the other day I heard someone complain about not being able to take a campaign viral, I knew it was time to create The Epic List of Useless PR Tactics. To make this epic, you will need to add to it, shamelessly and without hesitation. Every profession has tactics that consistently don’t work because the very premise of them is flawed.
I should preface by stating that most PR people I know, and whom we cover in PR News, are hard-working, intelligent and effective. But we all know colleagues who subscribe to one of the tactics below that only serves to set PR back as a profession:
Creating a viral campaign as goal #1: it’s gratifying when a campaign goes viral like the Oreo blackout tweet or the ice bucket challenge and social media has accelerated our ability to spread our messages (for better or worse). But understanding the motivations and psychologies of your stakeholders rather than making the medium (Twitter, Facebook, etc) the central focus will more likely result in spreadable content.
Using ad value equivalencies as a metric: While public relations is still struggling to agree on a standard metric, it has come a long way with the Barcelona Principles and matrices to better measure the value of PR in general and a campaign in particular. Applying AVEs to PR is the best route to going backwards.
Spraying and praying: you need media coverage, so the best way to get that is to send the same email and press release to thousands of journalists, most of whom do not cover your industry. Wrong! Even with updated and accurate databases at our disposal to target the appropriate journalist or influencer, telling a story to the right audience is still elusive to many.
Baiting and switching: there’s nothing a client hates more than thinking they’ve just hired a seasoned PR counselor only to be met the next week by someone a few years out of college who’s the lead on the account. After nearly 20 years in the PR space, I can say that there’s more transparency in agency-client relations and less bait-and-switch; the minority cases drown out the advancements.
Forgetting you have a voice: Email is an excellent communication tool but nothing beats talking to someone in person or by phone. Go retro and phone an industry friend, meet with a reporter or client and meet up with stakeholders on their turf (industry conferences, for example)
Forgetting you have ears: as with most disciplines, PR suffers from hearing loss. Listen to what your stakeholders are saying and be present in the places they are saying it. Listening is a workout: you have to discipline yourself to do it regularly but the rewards are noticeable.
Working in a silo: if you want to limit what your organization can achieve, then it’s important you stay neatly tucked into your department. But if you see that the lines have blurred and that it takes a village to raise the bar, then you know that aligning with your marketing peers (see my last blog on this), and even those in IR, IT, HR and other two and three letter departments will be the way forward for effective communications.
I want to hear from you. You’re on the front lines. What are some PR tactics we need to put an end to, stat? Please add to my list.
On twitter: @dianeschwartz
At yesterday’s Communications Week “PRx” event in New York, Barri Rafferty, CEO of Ketchum North America, said that women need to stop saying “I’m sorry” if they want to become chief executives. The phrase “I’m sorry” is used too freely by women, according to Rafferty. It’s usually a thoughtless preamble to a statement or mere entrance into a room, and is a signifier of a lack of confidence and feeling of unworthiness.
“Have swagger,” Rafferty said. “Don’t be sorry—shine and be strong.”
I couldn’t help being reminded of her advice to women when I read today’s article in the New York Times about the Council of Public Relations Firms’ “soul-searching.”
The Times reported that the council, which is holding its annual conference on Oct. 23, adopted an informal name, the PR Council, and that in discussions of the rebranding the council had considered eliminating “PR” entirely.
The article points out that although social media and content marketing have expanded the role that PR plays in brand communications, PR—in particular, PR agencies—“has also been under scrutiny recently for a string of flubs and foul-ups.” The council was seeking a new moniker that would encompass PR’s past, present and future, but drop-kicking the term “PR” into the waste bin would have betrayed PR’s own lack of confidence and sense of unworthiness.
For generations, PR practitioners could only look on with envy and perhaps disgust at the budgets thrown at ad agencies and marketers, but the evolution of technology has been on their side, whether they realize it or not. The Council of Public Relations Firms–make that the “PR Council”—recognized that truth in the end.
Inevitably the question arises when you’re in a room full of communicators: how do we break down the silos between PR and Marketing? I recently moderated a panel with Andrew Bowins of Mastercard and Jay Bartlett of Pitney Bowes on the topic of marketing-PR collaboration, or lack thereof in many organizations. We agreed that a path toward “togetherness” – as we’re all in this together – could mean better performance for your organization.
Both Jay and Andrew agreed that the departments need to not only talk to one another more often, but force collaboration into the culture until it becomes the culture. A few audience members shared how their organizations are literally breaking down the cubicles and re-engineering work spaces so that marketing and PR colleagues are sitting side by side.
There are a few elephants in the room when it comes to PR-Marketing collaboration and these animals are filling the space: budget and org chart. Most organizations have separate PR and marketing budgets and there’s an inherent competition between the two to get a larger slice of a smaller pie. Then there’s the organization chart which is dusted off every now and then and tweaked, not transformed. Who reports to whom and who ultimately has the CEO’s ear is inextricably linked to budget, performance and outcomes. Understanding the new skills needed to accelerate growth may mean rethinking job titles, responsibilities and organizational structure.
At PR News’ Social Media Summit last week there was a consensus that marketing and PR need to partner more regularly and in particular when it comes to the rapid pace of social media communications. Who owns social media is not so much the question when both departments agree that their audience owns it.
PR and Marketing may get married one day – perhaps by necessity. But for the marriage to last it needs to do what most successful couples do: spend a lot of time together, move in and get to know how each other lives (my mother would disagree on this) and then get engaged. Work out the money issues and day to day responsibilities. Stick together in sickness and in health. You’re going to need each other.
– Diane Schwartz
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
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?
At a yoga class the other day, the instructor excitedly and in a heavy whisper told us she was going to shake things up a bit. “We’re not going to do the same moves you’re used to.” I peered down the hall at the Spinning class and contemplated rolling up my yoga mat and making my way there. I am glad I stuck with yoga that day because it not only stretched my limbs, it challenged my mind in new ways beyond the 60-minute class.
The instructor was nervous about these changes and kept apologizing: “Sorry, but no Downward Dog today!” It was all about Child’s Pose. “Be a Warrior,” she declared, as she implored us to just forget about Mountain Pose today. The Seated Twist was totally new to this class, and you could hear the grunts over the soothing music. “I hope you’ll forgive me for requiring a different path today. I only wish it gets you thinking about what routine you may change in your life this week.”
It was a Sunday and I decided to take her literally. From Yoga I went grocery shopping and started my excursion in reverse – Aisle 18 (milk and eggs) rather than my typical starting point of fruits and vegetables, Aisle 1.
I had a spare half hour for a manicure. Instead I got a pedicure and selected a nail color that my 10-year-old niece would have chosen for herself. My yoga instructor would either be proud or appalled.
Later that night, I made my to-do list for the coming week. I put family things first on this list, then work items, and within the work to-do’s I listed only 2 things (rather than 10) for each day. I handed the sticky note to my husband to check it out. “Why are you showing me this?” he asked. I said, “Because I never show you my to-do list.” It was not exactly a romantic moment, but it was different.
At work, there are a lot of ways to shake up your routine. I’m not referring to barging into your boss’s office and asking for a raise, throwing your old computer on the floor demanding a new one, or launching a new product for a new audience. I’m talking about the little things you can do to rejuveniate, to challenge your muscle memory and to think of your day’s work in different and possibly more creative ways. This week, consider these changeups:
1. Walk down a different hallway to your office or cubicle: you’ll run into colleagues you normally don’t interact with and see areas of your work environment you never pay attention to.
2. Discard one item for every year you’ve worked at your company – pieces of paper you know you’re never going to read or need, items gathering dust, old plasticware. (Crumbs don’t count.)
3. Go to a competitor’s Web site, find something great there, and share it with your team in a positive, non-defensive way.
4. Favor a different social media platform: if you spend the bulk of your social media time on Twitter, for this week spend more time on Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, Google+ or LinkedIn. Post, respond, join a conversation.
5. Ask a colleague if you could shadow him or her for a few hours. Assuming this will be kosher with the highers-up, consider spending 120 minutes with your IT guy or 120 in Accounting; or a few hours with Marketing.
6. Go to lunch with a colleague you don’t know well. It might not sound appetizing, but chances are you’ll find common interests and learn something new about her and your company.
7. Write with pen and paper: Send a thank you note to 3 people: one person you work with, one customer or client, and someone who’s influenced you in your career. Don’t forget to mail it.
Just as my yoga instructor got me thinking in new ways, I hope this list will inspire you to shake up your routine and start to see new things in your environment and different ways of approaching work.
And with that, Namaste.
– Diane Schwartz
Find your way to my Twitter @dianeschwartz
Which workplace exchanges do you find to be most difficult? For most people, they’re centered on two things: Personnel and performance. Both of these things straddle the worlds of internal communications and HR, and both are also general managerial challenges.
I recently read an interesting column in Business Insider about the toughest conversations you can have at work. They were:
1. The Emotional Dismissal Conversation
2. The Awkward Personality Conversation
3. The Underperformance Conversation
All these are tough, but they are typically part of the same progression, and the progression usually starts with number three above, and ends with number one. Here are the toughest workplace conversations, from my perspective, and how I proceed.
These kinds of issues run the gamut—from people who are squabbling, to turf wars, to folks who simply don’t work well together. Sometimes goals don’t sync up. Other times, actual performance doesn’t fit the needs of the job, and that’s typically when the three-conversation pattern that Business Insider described kicks in. To my mind, all of these things are a huge challenge and all of them divert from the common business goal.
I’ve learned over the years that a sustained, tight focus on performance is the way to go. There should be no politics, no gossiping, just set a tone for the group that all you care about is results. Results require collaboration. Keeping everyone focused on that creates a sense of confidence that relaxes a group and empowers them to experiment and achieve.
This is another difficult area, but for communicators, it’s critical. Everyone from entry-level account managers to CEOs deals with either external clients, or with the public. Think of how frequent it is that a lower-level employee embarrasses a brand on social media, either when representing the company, or through some personal post that goes viral.
Of course, we’re talking about conversations—whether with a subordinate or a colleague, or with an external customer. I’ve learned you can’t wing it when it comes to customer conversations. Too much is at stake. Policies that everyone knows about and understands are critical, and these have to come from the top. I’ve had many conversations with customers in my career, and when business is on the line, they can be really tense. For me, the way to ensure that you preserve the business—if that’s the goal, sometimes it isn’t—the relationship has to come first. (This is a bit counter-intuitive, because I just stressed the importance of policies.) If your customers trust that you have their interests at heart, and you have thought through their challenges and understand their objectives—you’ll keep the business. If they feel like you’re officious, and policy-bound, you won’t. Never use the word “unfortunately.” That conveys a focus on your internal policy, not on customer-service. It is also condescending. Never use the phrase, “We’re not set up to do that” for the same reasons. Always be ready with a solution or two.
For a lot of professionals, in PR and elsewhere, this is always a stress-inducing conversation, especially if you’ve fallen short of your goals. But it doesn’t have to be. Putting aside the possibility of the fundamental lack of skills to do a job, most business-performance shortfalls relate to external factors in the market, not to your execution. So it really is an opportunity to shape a conversation about missing goals into the cool ways you’re going to pivot to adjust to changes in the market.
What are the business conversations you struggle with the most, and what advice can you offer?
“PR is losing its leadership position in Social.” That’s what the founder of a new company that provides social media measurement/monitoring tools to brands told me the other day when I asked about his target audience. He continued to note that “PR got too comfortable” and now Marketing, Advertising and automated services are taking over Social.
Let’s say we had a friendly disagreement over his claim, as I defended PR’s role in Social and shared stories gleaned from the PR News front lines of communicators’ role in driving social media. But perception can be reality, as we know.
If there’s a sector of the marketplace that is devaluing PR’s role in any medium, then every PR professional needs to do a better job of tying Social and other activities to the metrics that matter to their organization. Just as importantly, we need to make sure we’re communicating our success stories – effectively and regularly. That is one thing every PR person needs to do to help advance the communications profession.
Take a lesson from the trope about the cobbler’s children having no shoes. As communicators, you’re busy doing PR. Your days are filled speaking with stakeholders, writing, listening, measuring and implementing. Do you sometimes forget to tend to your PR success stories? It’s the last mile of your efforts: to communicate your successes not only to your superiors but to your superiors’ superiors, to the media, to your counterparts in Marketing, Finance, HR, IR, IT and Sales. I’d like to think the cobbler eventually noticed that he forgot to provide shoes for his own kids. PR needs to take care of its own, as well.
– Diane Schwartz