I’m writing this blog post on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional, but I want to make it plain that it’s not on Amtrak’s dime. So I’m free to complain about the woman across the aisle from me on the quiet car who keeps talking on her cell phone, the stopped-up sink in the bathroom, the stifling heat and the stale air.
I mention this because the railway has succeeded recently at creating positive buzz over its new writer residency program, in which it offers writers a free round-trip ride (but no pay) as a sort of mobile writing space. The New Yorker reported that the program was inspired by a comment this past December from train-enthusiast and novelist Alexander Chee, who said that he wished Amtrak offered residencies for writers. The comment was shared among writers on Twitter, and Amtrak jumped into the fray and offered one of those writers—New York-based freelance writer Jessica Gross—its first free ride in what will soon become a formal program, based around the official hashtag #AmtrakResidency.
Amtrak is still trying to figure out the particulars of the program. Gross’ ride was just a test run, and the railway was probably not expecting such a clamor for free rides from writers. While Amtrak basks in this wave of goodwill and takes deserved credit for being so quick and clever, it might want to take seriously the question of quid pro quo raised by New Yorker writer Vauhini Vara and Poynter.org writer Al Tompkins’ comments that while it’s fine for a novelist or songwriter to accept a free ride from Amtrak, journalists should always avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
It’s all too easy for a suddenly popular promotional vehicle to turn bad, so Amtrak will have to work out clear guidelines before sending the next writer out on the rails. For instance, how will Amtrak handle it when a writer complains in a blog post about the stopped-up sink, the lack of fresh air and the blabbers in the quiet car?
Damn, it’s hot in here.
Yesterday, I was driving home with a friend, and the conversation turned, as it inevitably does, to Howard Dean’s famous scream in the 2004 presidential campaign.
(Okay, it’s not really inevitable, it’s just funny to say that, and it goes to a point I’m about to make.)
And that point, to borrow from an old Douglas MacArthur phrase, is that old crises never go away.
Today, as Paula Deen launches a comeback, and as the 20-year-old allegations against Woody Allen are back in the news, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal resurfaces, that’s a fact worth addressing. For brands and their communications teams, crises are part of the permanent record. Dealing with that, though, can be tricky. It starts with the knowledge that while apologies will be demanded in the heat of the crisis—and most of the time must be offered—and forgiveness will be granted by many, mistakes are never forgotten. (In the case of Woody Allen, of course, he denies the allegations absolutely and has never apologized.)
So what to do? Here are a few essential principles.
1. Be aware that the record will include the crisis, no matter how old. This means you must plan for that inevitable resurfacing. That starts with the creation of a plan, but even more fundamentally, you need to learn from the crisis, and resolve never to repeat it. All subsequent business activities and decisions need to be made to ensure that objective. The elements of the plan, though, start with these next concepts.
2. Be open and non-defensive. You’ve acknowledged that the crisis occurred and is part of the permanent record, so there’s no point in reacting defensively if it comes back up. Don’t be emotional or angry. Don’t be indignant. If appropriate, use humor, as Howard Dean does when asked about his scream. And outline how you’ve learned and changed.
3. Have testimonials lined up. One of the best ways to reassure stakeholders when an old crisis crops back up is to have credible testimonials from well-selected supporters. It may be that you won’t want to directly address an old crisis, or respond to those who are reviving it. But having others speak for you can be very effective.
4. Deliver on your word. This is the most important. If an old crisis resurfaces, the most eloquent response you can make is to have a record in the intervening time that demonstrates that you didn’t just apologize and promise to make adjustments to get past the crisis. If you have years of a flawless track record, then that will be very persuasive in the court of public opinion.
There are three types of PR professionals: ineffective, good and great. It’s as simple as that, really. Most PR pros are good – they’ve found a comfortable place to practice their trade and are making an impact with their organization or clients. But Public Relations cannot afford to be a majority of Good professionals if it wants to lead the charge in moving markets and reputations.
Going from Good to Great takes work and new habits. Fortunately, habits are hard to break – so if you can acquire these 9 Habits of Highly Effective PR People, then you’ll no longer settle for Good. Based on conversations with PR professionals and our PR News team’s interviews with thousands of leaders, here are nine great PR habits:
1. Listen hard: don’t pretend you’re listening. Focus during key conversations and jot down what you heard, because you think you’ll remember the key takeaways but you won’t.
2. Speak the local language: understand the lingo of the communities and markets you serve and learn their language. The nuances can make a difference in your communications campaign.
3. Read until your eyes hurt: Always be reading something – be it a magazine article, a news item online, a fiction or non-fiction book. Reading stirs your imagination, helps you to become a better writer, and, of course, keeps you well-informed.
4. Embrace measurement: you’ve heard that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. It’s true. Sometimes it’s tough to swallow the results, much less communicate them. Establishing reasonable metrics and evaluating regularly will allow you to pivot, improve, learn and succeed.
5. Become a subject matter expert: Being a Jack (or Jackie) of All Trades is over-rated. Find a niche, study it, live it and become the go-to expert on that niche.
6. Practice your math: Knowing how to read a Profit/Loss statement, how to build and execute on a budget, how to calculate growth and decline will position you for leadership, and improve your PR initiatives.
7. Hone your writing skills: whether it’s a finely crafted memo, a post-campaign report or an email to a colleague or client, make your writing sing. How you write is often how you’re perceived in the field of communications. If you can’t articulate your message in writing, you can’t go from Good to Great.
8. Master your Social: Social media is not a strategy, it’s a platform. Understand it and use it regularly but don’t let Fear of Missing Out make you an obsessive social communicator. The other “social” — communicating and networking with peers and stakeholders (preferably in person or by phone) — holds more long-term value for you as a PR leader.
9. Be a PR advocate: Public Relations often suffers from an image problem; PR is not just about pitching to the media or bitching about the media; it’s one of the most important disciplines within an organization. Advocate for your profession – and the best way to do that is by being a Great PR Person.
I might have missed a few habits, so please add to this list!
- Diane Schwartz
Maybe you recall Strother Martin’s pained, twisted line of dialogue spoken to Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, delivered after Martin has struck chain-gang prisoner Newman with a blackjack: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
I thought of this line after seeing the story making the rounds yesterday that British millennials check their mobile devices every nine minutes and 50 seconds. This kind of data and story promotes the concept that millennials are an entirely different species of human, and insinuates that they’re unfocused, difficult to manage, flighty and much more addicted to technology than the rest of us.
The failure to communicate with millennials—from both the brand and personal perspectives—stems not from what makes them different from the rest of the population, but from assumptions based on anecdotal evidence, bite-size statistics and generational resentment. It’s the old saw: “These kids today, they want everything handed to them on a silver platter—we never had it so good.”
First, about the stats making the rounds yesterday: They sprang from a U.K. Daily Mail story that quoted a study conducted by a “customer service solutions” company called KANA, which has certainly succeeded in getting its name out there. Are its findings telling? Perhaps, but it’s too easy to take its showcase stat about 18-to-24-year-olds out of context. I know this is anecdotal on my part, but it seems to me that we’re all hopelessly addicted to our mobile devices.
“Millennials are people, not ‘a people,’” says Jake Katz, VP, audience insights & strategy for music-focused TV network Revolt. “Behaviorally, they are more similar than different to other generations,” says Katz, who will be keynoting PR News’ Digital PR Summit in San Francisco on Feb. 5, and who was formerly general manager of Ypulse, a youth market research firm.
For brands, the first step to communicating with millennials, according to Katz, is to discard the popular myth that they are massively different from everybody else, and pivot from thinking about what they are to how to communicate with the many different geographical and age ranges within the millennial demographic.
It’s time to lay the proverbial generational blackjack to rest and begin the real work of learning about the people around you—on a business and personal level.
For those of you tired of awards speeches, you’ll find no better honoree than Daft Punk, the electronic music duo that won four Grammy Awards on Sunday including Record of the Year and Album of the Year. The French helmet-headed duo took the stage at Sunday’s awards show multiple times in their loud silence, letting others speak for them.
While some media trainers may warn their clients to avoid appearing robotic, the opposite would hold true for Daft Punk.
While some media trainers would work tirelessly with a client to get the messaging just right, there are no words to be spoken, no lines to get wrong, no Teleprompter to worry about.
Makeup, hair, outfit? Not a problem for these robots. Just stand up straight and stiff and channel your inner robot.
Whether or not they are musical geniuses, Daft Punk has managed their image straight to stardom and have resisted the urge to put their egos ahead of their product. Their performances are lauded for their creativity and visual elements: the music version of visual storytelling (and you thought Daft Punk and PR had nothing in common?). When asked in the rare media interview about their robot get-ups, they speak in themes of human + machine, or the separation of their personal and public lives.
Let’s not get any strange ideas to start dressing our senior executives in robot suits and helmets and avoiding the media. (I believe that the president of France Francois Holland tried hiding behind a helmet recently and couldn’t avoid the media, but I digress.) What makes Daft Punk so interesting and compelling – regardless of one’s musical tastes – is the originality of their idea, the honing of their unique craft and a loyal fan base that accepts them for the robots they are really not.
– Diane Schwartz
If you’re not a robot, please follow me on twitter @dianeschwartz
You know how athletes celebrate by jumping in the air and banging into each other? Or develop ritual dances and other showboat-y gestures? This is especially true in football. I noticed in the Seahawks-49ers game a week ago how when the Seahawks scored, they eschewed the dances. They just shook hands. I thought that was a refreshing contrast that to my eye indicated professionalism and focus on an unfinished task.
So when Richard Sherman had his outburst on national TV in a post-game interview, it seemed out of character from the team’s overall approach.
In the days since that interview, Sherman has been the topic of a nonstop national conversation about sportsmanship, classiness, class and more.
And at the core of that national conversation is a cluster of valuable lessons for communicators around things like cognitive dissonance, preconceived notions, stereotypes and most important, understanding that the message you want to communicate might not be the same as what you’re really communicating.
I don’t know what Sherman’s objective might have been when he screamed that he was the best cornerback in the league to Erin Andrews. Maybe he was just caught up in the moment. I read that Andrews said that he hugged her and smiled at her before his rant. The 3.9 GPA graduate of Stanford University and high school salutatorian probably didn’t expect to be labeled a thug. And worse. He probably didn’t expect to become the major sports story in the country for a week and counting.
And conversely, if Sherman had been, say, Wes Welker, he might not have been. Sometimes people see what they want to see, based on their own set of experiences rather than what really happened. Sometimes things are not what they first appear to be. And sometimes those preconceived ideas are very resilient.
Come to think of it, my notion of gentlemanly handshakes, not elaborate dances, is itself a preconceived notion that maybe many others don’t share. Who knows?
What I do know, though, is that image, and message, have to be clear enough, and broad enough, and widely accepted enough to not be susceptible to misinterpretation, whether you’re communicating for a manufacturing brand, a buttoned-down CEO, a Web startup, a non-profit—or your football team.
You can feel yourself age when you use such antiquated words like “telephone” in front of your 12-year-old son. “Mom, who says ‘telephone’ anymore?” He has a point.
Every now and then “telephone” creeps into my language, as do other throwbacks like Rolodex and VCR. Just as we don’t say “telephone” very often, we also don’t use the device as much as we should in the communications business. We’re so used to emailing, texting, posting, pinning, sharing and liking that we often put phone communications on the back burner. That phone taking up space on your desk is a bit lonely.
In the past week how many times have you engaged in a business conversation via the phone versus email or LinkedIn or even texting? How many times have you thought, “I should have just called her”? Or, “I wonder what he meant in that email when he said ‘let’s discuss’”? Perhaps it means we should actually talk.
Phone communication for business is not yet an antiquated activity but it’s getting there. Let’s not contribute to its demise. Communicators who pick up the phone – either to make a call or receive a call – will (and do) have the edge with stakeholders. Social media cannot replace phone calls. Emailing cannot replace a one-on-one conversation. An interview with a reporter that’s done by email is inferior to one that’s either in-person or by phone. A customer-service related issue is usually more efficient via email but if you really want to ‘wow’ a customer, check in by phone. A press release does not replace verbal communication with key stakeholders.
As we embark on a new year for communications excellence, let’s make the call to take the call or make a call.
- Diane Schwartz @dianeschwartz
Call me with topics you’d like to see covered in this blog: 212-621-4964.
English has 1.1 million words, more words than any other language, according to the Global Language Monitor and other sources. That’s double the next most prolific language. And English adds about 15 words per day, or one every 98 minutes.
So 400 years after the greatest English wordsmith of them all, William Shakespeare, the language remains a living, changing, vital form of communication, something PR folks use every day. And they work hard at it. It’s said PR is, at its core, storytelling. But if that’s true, then storytelling, at its core, is about words.
It stands to reason, then, that as words get added, other words become obsolete. Who uses “groovy” anymore? And as technology transforms our lives, the lifecycle of some words speeds up. In that spirit, we offer a list of words we came across as 2014 dawned that should be banned, starting now.
Words to be Banned, Generic Edition
(Courtesy of Lake Superior State University, and selected by them for the sins of misuse, overuse and general uselessness)
• Mr. Mom
• _____ on Steroids
A related list, from USA Today, gets at a few more words and phrases that have become persona non grata.
• Combined celebrity couple names
• “Abbrevs,” like “ridic,” “totes,” “obv,” “cray,” and lots more.
Phrases and Words to be Banned, Work Edition
(Courtesy of USA Today)
• Noncommittal language
• Describing things as “surreal”
• Saying “quote-unquote”
• Starting all sentences with “So,” and ending them with “right?”
Phrases and Words to be Banned, PR Edition
(Courtesy of Yahoo Tech’s David Pogue)
You’ll never catch me using terms like “price point” when I mean “price,” or “form factor” when I mean “size.” I’ll never say “content” when I mean video, “solution” when I mean product, “DRM” when I mean copy protection, or “functionality” when I mean “feature.” Also, I will never refer to you as “the user.” (If you think about it, only two industries refer to their customers as users.)
So there you have it. What do you think? So when I was compiling this list, it seemed like a valuable study in the use of language, right?
At PR News’ recent Media Relations Conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Amy Eisman of American University’s School of Communication and a founding editor of USA Today brought up the concept of the “journalist whisperer.” This is a PR professional who can speak a journalist’s language on the platform they want to be reached on. Someone who doesn’t have to use press releases or mass emails but has developed relationships to the point where they are only a call, informal email or G-chat away from the right journalist to cover their client’s or organization’s story.
Isn’t this what the whole media relations function is all about, what it’s always been about? Perhaps in the bygone days of long lunches, ad-stuffed newspapers and magazines and fat expense accounts (both on the PR and media sides of the equation) no one had to be told to be a journalist whisperer. There was time to build relationships.
Now it’s just plain hard to keep relationships of all types together. The pace of life and technology itself seems to have driven wedges between individuals—between family members, between friends, between business colleagues.
It’s up to you to break that pattern. Amy Eisman didn’t cook up the term “journalist whisperer”—she heard it from a journalist friend who made it plain that she needs the help of great PR pros. She needs their help to do her job, more than ever. She wants to forge bonds with PR pros who know her, know her work habits, know the unique pressures she’s under, know what she needs to hit her own deadlines and drive the bottom line for her own media organization.
So commit to building those relationships with the media professionals who matter to you. And the best way to do that is to do what you would do in any relationship. Don’t wait until you need something to reach out to them. Ask them how they’re doing and what they need when you don’t need anything in particular. Just a little whisper, once in awhile.
Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI
The good thing about New Year’s resolutions is that no one is really listening closely to what you are resolving to do. But resolutions do crystallize our goals and make the month of January, at least, a little more interesting. For communicators the world over, you should expect 2014 to bring the following:
> Crises, smoldering or quick
> Reputations under fire or on fire
> Media coverage, for better or worse
> Employee morale issues
> Financial ups and downs
> Product and company launches
> Product and company failures
> A new social media craze
These are just a few of the sure things in PR as we herald in the new year and perhaps a new approach to PR. In my nearly two decades covering Public Relations, I have never seen a bigger opportunity than now for PR practitioners to be the dominant force in brand leadership, message management and tying intangibles and tangibles to the bottom line.
There are many ways to not screw up this trajectory and to possibly make 2014 the most exciting year for you in PR. To do that, however, will take some commitment to the core tenets and practices of the best PR practitioners. Here at PR News we benchmark outstanding communication leadership across all areas of the market. From our Platinum PR to our PR People Awards, from Corporate Social Responsibility to the Digital PR Awards, we see a pattern in excellence that underscores why resolutions are worth keeping. Like many New Year’s Resolutions, the following list may sound familiar but I submit that the best ideas are worth repeating:
* Find the interesting story behind your message – and tell it
* Measure your PR and be bold enough to make adjustments
* Listen to your stakeholders: your customers, investors, employees are your keys to success
* Learn to work across silos – marketing, HR, IT, Finance, Legal
* Become a better goal-keeper: of your goals, your department’s and your organization’s
* Collaborate internally and externally – 1+1=3
* Hone your writing skills: you reach more people when you can spell, turn a phrase and use your words correctly
* Foster diversity: in thought and experience
* Don’t fear missing out: resist the urge to be on every social media platform
* Be transparent: people are smart enough to see through the BS anyway
* Advocate for PR: become a voice for Public Relations inside your organization and in the marketplace of ideas.
What are some of your PR resolutions for 2014? Please share with your fellow PR News blog readers.
Best of luck to you and your team for a meaningful and memorable 2014.
– Diane Schwartz
PS – Check out more of my blog posts from the past few months: