What is it about CEOs? How can so many of them be so smart and so accomplished, and yet still say so many bad or dumb things?
It’s enough to keep a communications team up at night—and if they get to sleep, they have anxiety-driven nightmares.
Just this week, Guido Barilla, the CEO of one of the leading pasta makers in the world, brought a boycott down on his company for remarks that were viewed as homophobic. Within a few hours of the news, according to the guardian.com, the hashtag “boicotta-barilla” was trending on Twitter.
“For us, the concept of the sacred family remains one of the basic values of the company,” Barilla said in a radio interview when asked whether he’d use gay people in advertising. “I would not do it, but not out of a lack of respect for homosexuals who have the right to do what they want without bothering others. I don’t see things like they do and I think the family that we speak to is a classic family.”
This all comes just months after Chick-Fil-A CEO Dan Cathy renewed an old controversy he created in 2012 by tweeting his dissatisfaction with the Supreme Court decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.
Also this year, Abercrombie and Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries brought negative attention on himself and his company when older comments surfaced where he said he only wants good looking people to buy his clothes.
And American Apparel CEO Dov Charney seems to be just minutes away at any given time from another lawsuit.
I think CEOs are smart, for sure—but they’re also human. And once people get to the top of their profession, they’re a) accustomed to thinking they’re always right, and b) used to subordinates telling them they’re always right. That leads very quickly to hubris and arrogance for most people, excepting only those who are really disciplined and have a very solid sense of self.
What’s a communicator to do? Here are a few options:
• Engage the executives in your company in media training. Not in sporadic episodes, but sustained programs. Don’t do it yourself. Bring in experts.
• Challenge the boss. Oftentimes, you’ll be putting your job at risk, but heck, it can’t be good for you or your company if you merely go along and get along.
• Know your executives. Know what their personal perspectives are. Respect those views, but help them understand that those views and the company’s marketing messaging are two different things.
• Offer yourself as a sounding board to flippant top executives—have them bounce their public statements off you first. And if they reject that idea, then it might be time to think about your own reputation and find an environment that is more receptive to good PR counsel.
I was quoted in the newspaper the other day. The quote was technically inaccurate—I didn’t say what the reporter wrote that I said. But it was correct in the substance. In effect, the reporter understood my meaning, and got it right, but wasn’t writing down or transcribing my words verbatim. The quote was an approximation, rebuilt by the writer.
Was it okay? All’s well that ends well? No, not really. It can’t be. My view from years of work in journalism is that if you use a direct quote, it has to be what the person said. As a reporter and editor, I’ve cleaned up quotes, and taken out repeated words, and eliminated sentence fragments that come up when people speak extemporaneously and change their direction as they go. I’ve even clarified quotes, inserting nouns when the speaker used pronouns.
But that’s different from “reconstructing” a quote because you didn’t write it down—or you weren’t listening carefully.
Which leads me to my point. In journalism or PR—indeed all communications—listening is a technique. In PR, it could be about understanding the context and underlying objective of a campaign, not just what the client’s RFP said, or what the CEO indicated at the Monday meeting. It is something close to intuition, even if that can be tricky. There is a skill to training your ear to listen, even as you’re taking notes.
The process is fascinating, really. I remember early on, when I’d have one of those old-style reporter’s notebooks, furiously scribbling, standing up, as the mayor (or whomever) rattled off a comment. I got so good at it that I could listen, and engage critically, responding to what was said, and not just merely transcribing. And at the same time, I could sense in real time when a quote was good enough to take it down verbatim.
And that’s the crux. As a communications professional, great engagement and great results can only come from truly listening—call it critical listening—and being able to separate the fluff from the substance. On the fly.
An example: Just last week, I attended a conference, but spent more time than I should have tending to matters back at the office. When it came time to write a cohesive report on the event, I kind of surprised myself, because all the while I had been doing critical listening. I was tuned to the speakers and the comments that mattered the most. The report wasn’t half bad.
I picked up a sound piece of advice the other night, during a college admissions event my daughter and I attended. Among the questions the prospective students asked of the alumni panel was whether the class sizes are so big that you can’t see, hear and learn in them. The very articulate Class of 2010 alumnus responded with a great piece of advice that was applicable to me — and you, I imagine. She said: “Just sit in the front of the room.” (Ah, if only it were that easy. Especially in college, when you really aren’t sure if you’ll be staying for the whole class, and what about your friends who wouldn’t dare sit in the front row?)
The high school senior who asked the question nodded affirmatively, but you could see that the sound advice flowed right over her head. I believe she was hoping for a literal answer, such as “Yes, it sucks, but you deal with it.”
The takeaway for me was an affirmation that just changing where you sit changes your perspective, improves your visibility, eliminates distractions, and gets you noticed. To take the advice further, instead of sitting in the back of the room (or being anonymous in your organization, or among your customers), move yourself to get closer, to be seen, and to hear things more clearly. By sitting (or getting closer), you’ll pick up on details that could make a big difference in your viewpoint. Our marketplaces are bigger than any college classroom; if you’re in the way, way back then you’re missing out on the conversation.
I didn’t expect to learn much from this college event – it was really for my daughter, not me. Which shows you can learn some life lessons from unexpected places and times. Just sit closer, and listen.
When I started out in journalism—in daily newspapers—every so often you’d have a colleague opt out of the reporter’s life and move into PR instead. It always seemed like a loss, because some of those colleagues were the most capable among us.
But journalism’s loss was PR’s gain. Today, in 2013, that’s perhaps more true than ever, because of the disruption of the traditional media world. Let’s be honest with what’s happening: The newspaper industry—the industry dedicated to putting news on a paper product, which is printed and distributed every morning—is dying. Print newspapers probably will be gone in a generation or less. The print-magazine industry is less challenged than newspapers, but the trend is clear. Think about what’s happened.
• It’s not just that new technologies have massively changed media-consumption patterns and expectations.
• It’s not just that the Internet has destroyed many forms of revenue-producing classified advertising, which once was a staple of newspaper businesses.
• It’s not just that it’s become an extraordinary challenge to invest resources in highly qualified journalists to produce news, when that news is then redistributed online for free within minutes. How do you make money in that environment?
• It’s not just that newspapers have become an inefficient and outdated vehicle for local advertising. Local ad revenue is soaring, but it’s online, and going to contextual and ROI-oriented technology companies like Facebook and Google.
• And it’s not just that paid reader circulation—an essential part of the revenue model for newspapers and magazines—is unpredictable, at best, online.
It’s all those things, combined. And the pace of change is accelerating. One outcome has been a wave of downsizings in the newspaper and magazine worlds, with more journalists moving into PR. And ironically, what many of them are doing now is—wait for it—creating journalism! They’re just doing it for all different kinds of brands, not just media brands. They’re serving brand communities, not geographic or industry-specific communities.
As media has changed, so has marketing and communications. The most significant change currently in brand communications is content marketing, where brands engage audiences through traditional journalism techniques—they tell interesting and relevant stories that readers like. This storytelling doesn’t work if it’s product pitching in disguise. It’s more sophisticated than that. And usually, it’s the PR staff that handles content marketing.
Is content marketing a threat to journalism? No. No more so than the bottom-feeder media companies that for 100 years neglected journalism and viewed content as “the space between the ads.”
What is happening is this: As marketers increasingly engage in content marketing—online, on social media, in video—they make PR stronger. They become a new source of competition for traditional media companies. And they also provide a new source of employment for those professional journalists who’ve found that career opportunities, good incomes and professional growth are no longer as plentiful in traditional media.
Maybe those folks who went into PR when I was starting out were just a bit ahead of the trend line.
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
Last week, Buzzfeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti published a long memo on LinkedIn. It was titled a memo to the staff, but really was only partly directed to the staff. It was also a PR message to all stakeholders as well as competitors.
At any rate, it was brilliant. It was the most clear-headed, fully thought-out description of where media are going, and what attributes are necessary for success in a completely transformed media era. For those reasons—because it serves as both a great example of executive communication and helps PR pros understand where media is going—it’s worth discussing.
First thing Peretti did was thank his team in what seemed heartfelt and was certainly gracious:
“Before anything I want to thank you for all your amazingly great work over the last year. All of our success is because of you. BuzzFeed is on a significant roll, we have reached new milestones and our future looks tremendously bright.”
And that’s just the start. Peretti cited statistics illuminating BuzzFeed’s staggering Web growth. He outlined non-Web initiatives, such as an app, a YouTube channel and live meetups. He indicated the things BuzzFeed will not be doing: Live paid events, print magazines, white-label versions of BuzzFeed. And he reveals that his company is profitable—a rarity for Web-only startups.
As part of his thank-yous, he cites the work of various content, technology, data and marketing teams. Then Peretti gets into some interesting territory.
“Most other publishers integrate off-the-shelf products built by others, but this full-stack, vertically integrated approach was worth the significant, multi-year investment and is paying off fantastically today,” Peretti said. “There are great tech companies and great editorial institutions, but it is very rare for one company to take both as seriously as we do.”
This is an important point. Very few traditional media companies look at their businesses this way. And that serves to ensure that they are perennially a half-lap or more behind technology companies like Google and Facebook, which understand the direct relationship between content and technology, and how it drives the new types of media consumption. It’s simply not about monthly magazines, with a front-to-back pattern, and traditional devices like the TOC and a feature well.
This leads to the really interesting core of the memo, where Peretti pivots into a discussion of the characteristics and economic prospects of BuzzFeed (and presumably other pureplay media companies) compared to traditional media companies.
“Facebook, Twitter, and the other Silicon Valley-based social sites are amazing distribution platforms, but user generated content alone isn’t enough to fill the hole left by the ongoing decline of print newspapers and magazines,” he said. “The world needs sustainable, profitable, vibrant content companies staffed by dedicated professionals; especially content for people that grew up on the web, whose entertainment and news interests are largely neglected by television and newspapers.”
This is all true. It’s important to hear, even if his point about the “Silicon Valley-based social sites” ought to be looked at with skepticism. That’s because the basic dynamic of social sharing undermines the profit-generating ability of news organizations, and because BuzzFeed’s founding idea is about creating (and also finding and sharing) content for those same “Silicon Valley social sites.” You can’t have it both ways.
Still, Peretti is pointing to a new future, and he elaborates in nine additional points, covering everything from news to mobile to international coverage.
(The point about being an international brand is especially valuable. Old-school media companies launch international editions. Technology companies, and, Peretti said, BuzzFeed, are one brand, one content package, translated and presented to different markets.)
One of Peretti’s points is that his company is investing in news. “There is a huge opportunity to be the leading news source for the social, mobile world,” he wrote. “As we saw during the 2012 election, the Boston bombings, and our LGBT focused coverage of the Sochi Olympics, a new generation of readers are turning to us for news.”
You didn’t need to search very hard last week to find a contrary perspective, one that Peretti never addresses. Jeff Bezos, the Amazon CEO who just bought the Washington Post for $250 million, gave his first interview—to the Post. Said Bezos:
“The Post is famous for its investigative journalism. It pours energy and investment and sweat and dollars into uncovering important stories. And then a bunch of Web sites summarize that [work] in about four minutes and readers can access that news for free. One question is, how do you make a living in that kind of environment? If you can’t, it’s difficult to put the right resources behind it.”
Bingo. If BuzzFeed is truly going to succeed in homegrown news, it needs to crack that code. Nothing that I’ve seen indicates anyone—including anyone at BuzzFeed—has figured that out.
And then there’s advertising. “Part of being a great business is being a “must buy” for advertisers who have many options,” Peretti said. “This means giving advertisers the full advantage of our scale, our data, our creative team, our social and mobile reach, and our technology platform. We have more expertise about social content than any other company. We can light up the social web for an advertiser across Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, with content that is worth clicking and sharing.”
Peretti has done a lot of thinking and writing about how content is shared. He’s serious and knowledgeable about his business. The challenge with that is that BuzzFeed’s own advertising model is based on a trend that works against media companies. BuzzFeed specializes in native advertising—advertising that looks and feels like and lives in the same format and in the same context as BuzzFeed’s (and other media companies’) own content. That is innovative, for sure, but it plays into another major trend—companies creating their own content and building audiences on their own, without the traditional dependency on media companies. This, combined with the targeting capabilities social sites and Google, enables non-media brands to create content, engage audiences, identify leads and sell products and services without the same level of reliance on third party companies.
I love the clarity of Peretti’s vision. That doesn’t mean there aren’t significant trends playing against BuzzFeed.
Women are being told to “lean in” to advance their careers; others are encouraged to lean out. I’ve got some advice that’s gender-neutral and is in response to a troublesome trend permeating society, from business meetings to social gatherings, from conference rooms to concert halls, from boardrooms to, um, bedrooms. The advice? Look Up! Move your focus from your phone to your physical environment and you’ll be pleased with the meaningful connections you can make in real-time.
This is not a lecture to stop texting, emailing, posting or pinning. Rather, it’s a reminder to be in the moment. To embrace the conversation in front of you without the distraction of the cloud. Without the addictive need to upload a photo, tweet a thought or respond to an email that really can wait. Sometimes you must look down and away, sending out an important message or just taking a break from the real world. It’s forgivable.
I am sometimes guilty of Looking Down and I try to catch myself – before I either walk into a wall or become so disoriented with what’s being discussed in the room that I’m scrambling to come up with something smart to say to prove I was listening. But those of us who regularly Look Down are not fooling anyone. Over time, you become “that person” who is always on her phone, that person who has better things to do than Look Up and engage. That person who thinks sending a Selfie in the middle of a meal with colleagues will keep you in the loop, in the know. Don’t be that person.
In the business of communications, it is imperative that we listen and engage. We are storytellers, and the cumulative effect of always Looking Down is we miss the story. For those in management or mentoring positions, modeling the Look Up behavior will go a long way toward creating knowledgeable and focused apprentices who will not only learn to Look Up and listen, but will inevitably look up to you as a shining example of restraint and engagement in a noisy, digital world.
– Diane Schwartz
In the tech world, one of the iconic moments of the 1990s was when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997. He went to Macworld and gave one of his best speeches, during which he announced a partnership with Microsoft. Bill Gates made an appearance during that speech, projected on a giant screen behind Jobs.
Jobs was said to have always been uncomfortable with the visuals of that moment, where Gates was the giant presence, overwhelming the tiny Jobs, and symbolically, Apple itself.
Never mind that that actually was true in 1997. It got me thinking about how important the visuals are in public relations and overall communications, planned or spontaneous. It applies in every human endeavor, not just tech and not just business. Think politics. Michael Dukakis’ campaign was derailed in 1988 by that photo of him in a tank. He didn’t look presidential, to put it mildly. Or think about an iconic sports image, the 1968 Olympics medal ceremony where two American track athletes, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, raised their fists in the black power salute. The third medal winner, Australian Peter Norman, appeared to be ignoring the other two, but he was involved and supportive in advance and actually wore a badge to show solidarity.
Great imagery that underscores a message—whether for a brand or politician or athlete—doesn’t just happen. It requires thinking and planning and in the case of public relations, collaboration. Back in the 1980s, Michael Deaver was a master image creator for Ronald Reagan, notably, with his speech at Omaha Beach, in Normandy, France, at the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Europe.
More recently, the MTV Video Music Awards created a stir that continues even now, as the one-time tween star of Disney’s “Hannah Montana” performed a song at the event that made the term “twerking” a household word and left a big slice of the country revolted. But I suspect that somewhere, some publicity team is saying, “mission accomplished.” In that case, I suspect, the image (an adult, racy Cyrus—not Hannah Montana) is exactly what Cyrus wanted.
So it was dissonant last week when Vogue Magazine published a rare in-depth article on Marissa Mayer. The Yahoo CEO opened up for really the first time in her headline-generating 13-month tenure in a long and essentially positive article. But accompanying the article was a weird photo of Mayer lying on a couch/lounge type of furniture, upside down, in a blue dress.
And what struck me most was why a Stanford-educated technology-company CEO would allow her image to be undermined in a way that no male CEO would ever do and frankly, in a way that no male CEO would ever be asked to do. Would Tim Cook be asked to pose in that manner? Would he do it? How about Warren Buffett?
So in the end, an epic fail for Mayer, and in a way, worse for her personal brand than spending $30 million on some teenager’s app.
Late last week, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s foundation, LeanIn.org, got some negative media coverage. An editor from the organization posted a call on her Facebook page for unpaid interns.
The criticism was immediate and furious. How could a non-profit dedicated to empowering women, and fighting the glass ceiling, engage in what many people say are exploitative personnel practices? How could an organization headed by one of the most famous woman executives in the country—a woman who is extraordinarily wealthy and wrote a bestseller on why women’s progress in achieving leadership roles has stalled—expect the most junior and vulnerable people on her team to work for free?
The response was swift as well. Here’s a shortened version of what LeanIn.org president Rachel Thomas wrote on Friday:
“Like many nonprofits, LeanIn.Org has attracted volunteers who are passionate about our mission. We’ve had four students ask to volunteer with us. These volunteers helped support our message and community, and gained valuable experience doing so. They did not displace or delay the hiring of paid employees. As a startup, we haven’t had a formal internship program. Moving forward we plan to, and it will be paid. We support equality – and that includes fair pay – and we’ll continue to push for change in our own organization and our broader community.”
From my perspective, the statement is too defensive, and it mostly doesn’t address the central issue.
It seems to be saying, “Hey, people are coming to us asking to volunteer. Why should we have turned them away?” It seems to be saying, “Even those who work for us for free still get value, so it’s kind of okay.”
Those things might be true, but they’re also, frankly, not productive. That’s especially so for an organization dedicated to principles that are fundamentally at odds with those practices.
From a communications perspective, the defensiveness left a lingering feeling that LeanIn.org still doesn’t quite get it, even through they’re changing their practices.
But the good news, and LeanIn’s real promise, is in Thomas’ last couple of sentences, indicating a change in policy that will require paid internships.
So having perhaps learned a lesson, an organization dedicated to empowering women can now start a much more widespread conversation about changing something that’s much more pervasive than it used to be: Unpaid internships, and paid internships with no benefits replacing what used to be entry-level jobs.
I was at a PR News Conference a couple of weeks ago, and during a Q&A with a panel critiquing press inquiries, the question came up of when and how to follow-up with a non-responsive reporter.
I was the moderator of the panel, and I counseled persistence. I’ve found in my career as a journalist that it’s best to try and produce a response. It’s a fine line. If you’re too pushy, you increase the likelihood that you’ll get a response but diminish the chance that it will be a positive one.
If you’re too passive, you stand little or no chance of getting what you want, which is engagement—in the form of a response and accessibility if you’re a reporter, and engagement and a story if you’re in PR.
So the trick is to give the person with whom you’re corresponding time to consider your pitch, and friendly and professional reminders. This timeframe is dependent on the objective. If you need an answer on deadline, you have to follow-up immediately, even a few times in a single day. If you’re working on a longer-term project, every few days is better.
So at the event, I suggested that approach to the panel—get your source to respond. But one of the panelists, a reporter for USA Today, said that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t work. He said he gets dozens of pitches every day, and that he selects 20 or more at a time and deletes them in bulk. Even persistent PR outreach can’t overcome that.
He has a point, for sure. But my approach will produce a second look and a second chance, provided you’re doing a few things right. And if you are, you avoid getting your release “Snapchatted”—that is, deleted and gone forever within a few minutes of hitting an inbox. Here are some things to keep in mind.
• Think like a reporter. So we know that reporters are very busy, and need to make instant decisions about what to publish today, and what deserves to be worked on as a longer-term piece. So your release—from the subject line, to your brief written intro, to the text itself, must solve those two things for the reporter: Is it immediate news that needs to be published today? Or is it worthy of inclusion in a thought-leadership item, a trend piece?
• Think like a reporter circa 2013. This is really important. There are many more news outlets, and many of them are non traditional, so you have lots more opportunities to get something out into the news stream. But most traditional-media reporters are in organizations whose teams have been dramatically reduced. They’re much more harried. They’re in some cases less knowledgeable about the beats they cover. Your job is to solve their problems.
• Address their challenge, not your brand’s news. This is in some ways obvious, but in others, counter-intuitive. The point is, your news isn’t what a reporter is going to respond to, unless it’s a really major development. If your reporter covers tech, for example, and her specialty is the tech economy, then your press release about a personnel move needs to be framed in a way that makes it clear to the reporter that there’s a connection to the broader tech economy. You’d be surprised how often you can legitimately make a connection like that.
• Know your subject, but don’t patronize. Reporters can be cynical. They don’t like compliments that come off as fake. However, if you’re following the coverage your target reporter does, then you see all kinds of useful things—the types of stories, the points of emphasis that crop up repeatedly, the sources she uses, even favorite words and phrases. Play to those things—but do it implicitly, so the reporter senses his or her objectives are being met.
• If you’ve followed up several times, through e-mail and voicemail, do a quick reminder along the lines of, “Hey Jane—I know you’re really busy. Just wanted to check in on my release. It’s relevant to your audience because of X, Y, and Z. I hope you use it. I’m standing by to be of assistance. But let me know either way. If it’s a “no,” that’s okay, maybe next time.”