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
This year’s Super Bowl lived up to its hype, and it was one of the first times in recent memory that I found the game to be more exciting than the commercials. This year’s array of $4.5m spots struck a more somber and heart-warming note than years past. Considering what’s happening on the world stage and within the NFL itself, it wasn’t such a bad idea for brands to get behind life-affirming messaging. Even Mexican Avocados looked cute! And beyond the touchdowns, interceptions and curious calls were lessons that might resonate with you as you kick off your work week, and as we count down to Super Bowl 50:
Pull the heart strings, repeatedly: The Budweiser Clydesdale/lost puppy commercial was among the most memorable ads of the night. The Budweiser commercial was rather familiar to most fans since it was viewed millions of times before it officially aired. It was a sequel to last year’s crazily popular “Puppy Love” tear-fest. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Brian Perkins, vice president, Budweiser, told USA Today.
There’s a fine line between getting consumers’ attention and turning them off: Nationwide’s “Make Safe Happen” commercial was an unwelcome surprise and quite the downer for many as we watched a “dead” boy narrate all the things he missed out on. ” Tweeters took sides, mostly against the ad. Noted one tweeter: “Nice one Nationwide. That was pretty fun to watch a commercial about dead kids with my kids. #makesafehappen more like#scaremykids.” But people are talking about it — and the connection between your child’s safety and insurance — so I’m betting Nationwide considers it a success. In a statement defending the ad, Nationwide said: “While some did not care for the ad, we hope it served to begin a dialogue to make safe happen for children everywhere.”
Play through the crisis: The case of the deflated footballs (Deflategate) still in play, the Patriots astutely fielded, or rather deflected, media questions before and after the game and proved their ability to not let a crisis disappoint fans, otherwise known as a 28-24 win.
Own up to poor decisions: Sports analysts and Monday morning quarterbacks are calling it one of the “dumbest calls ever,” and it just might be up there. But it was encouraging to hear Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and QB Russell Wilson take responsibility (and not shift the blame) for the game-ending intercepted 1-yard-line slant pass. Not a rookie mistake; rather a rookie miracle that’s catnip to the media. Which leads to my last observation:
Don’t underestimate the rookies: there’s speculation that Wilson threw the pass in the direction of a less experienced player, clearly underestimating Malcolm Butler’s determination and skill. “I just read the play and made the play,” Butler said post-game. A lesson for us all.
– Diane Schwartz
We’ve seen the video and we’ve read countless articles about Ray Rice’s behavior back in February of this year at an Atlantic City casino when he was caught on tape assaulting his fiancee Janay Palmer and then dragging her limp body out of the elevator. We’ve read with fascination the NFL’s multiple reactions to the assault and we’ve watched Janay stand by Ray, marry him and even apologize for her behavior.
Fast forward to now and we get to watch an incredible media plan at play. Opinions aside about domestic abuse, whether the former Baltimore Raven should be reinstated or how abhorrent his behavior was (or is). The way Janay and her PR team are handling the media is a lesson for communicators in crises.
You may or may not agree with Janay’s decision to stand by her husband, but for the sake of this post, let’s say that’s beside the point. Her control of the message over the past week was impeccable. It was neat and clear. It was consistent and had emotion. It was well-timed and facilitated the broader purpose of getting her husband back on the field.
Hiltzik Strategies was among the advisors that screened more than a dozen media outlets before choosing ESPN and The Today Show. Specifically Jemele Hill at ESPN and Matt Lauer at Today. In both interviews she portrayed her relationship as not that different from most couples: we argue but we love each other, we have weakness but we have strengths. There was no real bridging of the message away from assault or domestic abuse because she controlled the pace and tone.
While the interviews took place in early November, their release was timed to go live after an arbitrator’s decision to reinstate Rice to the NFL.
She told Lauer: “Everybody makes mistakes. After this whole situation, you would think we lived in a country full of people who never made a mistake.”
For the ESPN interview which took place (not coincidentally) at Ray Rice’s mother’s home in New Rochelle, NY, Janay negotiated the byline, with the video interview positioned “By Janay Rice as told to Jemele Hill.” In the Nov. 5 interview she spoke of how she met Ray, the Baltimore Ravens’ “knee-jerk” reaction to the assault and all the lessons learned since the incident. “I hope when people read this they realize that we’re real. I want people to know how much we love each other and how far we’ve come. Everyone has their own story, this is mine.”
If you find yourself, your brand, or a member of your team in hot water, it wouldn’t hurt to turn to the Janay Rice crisis management playbook:
> Take time to formulate a strong response that is aligned with the end goal: Janay waited seven months to speak to the media.
> Choose your interviewers, not just the media outlet: vet the journalists who are going to interview you and limit the number of interviews you grant.
> Time it well: The Rices waited until the arbitrator ruling to get their message out. It helped that the ruling favored Ray over the NFL, but either way it was the right timing.
While Ray Rice’s behavior back in February is condoned by no one, the narrative is now about rehabilitation and forgiveness. In many circles, Ray Rice is still vilified. But when the very woman that he assaults is asking the public to forgive and move on, and she does so with grace and compassion, it is difficult to turn away.
– Diane Schwartz
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
Back in my reporting days, I spent a good amount of time doing something that might strike many as nostalgic: interviewing sources and talking to PR people on the phone. If only today’s reporters had time for telephonic activities. Surprise: they do! And they will take your call if you lay the groundwork first. They won’t take your call if you have nothing new or interesting to tell them. Now, this is assuming you want to talk to a reporter on the phone, as opposed to just emailing them, liking their Facebook Post, or tweeting them from afar. Let’s assume that a journalist-PR relationship is strengthened by some human interaction.
The concept is simple yet may feel out of reach in today’s always-on media environment: reporters will pay attention to you if you pay attention to them. Here are four ways to get a reporter’s attention:
- Give them the story by which to tell their story: as a consumer of news and information yourself, you are attracted to the stories about people, about a certain person, or family or community. You want to read about or hear an interesting narrative that is personal, not general. Do not send them a press release and then leave them a message in the dead of night asking if they got your press release. There’s nothing wrong with sending them a press release, but don’t mistake that (and the robocall) for “the story.”
- Serve up the visuals. Whether it’s a few charts and graphics, an infographic or eye-catching photographs, visuals are gold for reporters who are now (somewhat reluctantly) multimedia journalists. Make her job easier by handing over the visuals.
- Know (and understand) what they report on: I used to cringe at the advice at industry conferences that implored practitioners to “do your homework” — it was so basic, so obvious. And yet. Make sure you read up on what the reporter has covered in the past year, take notice of his writing style and technique, and be ready to accept that maybe this particular reporter does not cover your industry. Also be in tune to what their competitors are covering – reporters are a competitive breed and will appreciate your keeping them up to date on competitive coverage they might have missed.
- Share information with no strings attached. Info is currency: give it to the reporter without expecting an instant payback. This is a difficult task to master! Share industry news that’s not widely reported yet, tell the reporter what you heard or saw at an important industry conference (which of course, you attended), and don’t ask for anything in return. Reporters will think the world of you.
With tight deadlines, smaller newsrooms, a more educated readership and an unrelenting news cycle, journalists need trusted, go-to sources and great PR partners who understand them.
– Diane Schwartz
Visit me on Twitter: @dianeschwartz
“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
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
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.
There are certain people who even when they’re smiling warmly have a certain gravitas. They have a certain air that suggests intelligence, calculation, control, even as they engage the people around them. Bill Clinton has that. So does Denzel Washington. Oprah Winfrey. Colin Powell does, and Ronald Reagan did too. One thing that struck me about the photos and the movies of the late actor Paul Walker was that he had that quality as well.
Last week, at our annual PR People Awards presentation, our featured speaker was John Neffinger, co-author of the book, “Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential.” Neffinger’s talk was filled with specific, compelling points, all based around a simple premise: People judge other people based on two things, strength and warmth. Strength is the root of respect, and warmth is the root of affection. If you plotted both qualities out on an X axis and a Y axis, the ideal location would be the upper right quadrant, where strength and warmth are maximized. Any of the other three quadrants means a bad mix—either too much of one and not enough of the other, or too little of both.
Neffinger’s whole point was that this is the essential way all humans size each other up. And that only relatively few people ever master the ability to project both qualities at the same time.
And it seems to me that for communicators, especially those who spend a lot of time in public, representing the company—or interacting with employees, for that matter—that Neffinger’s counsel is important. Here are some highlights from his talk that are relevant to communicators looking to sync verbal messaging with non-verbal cues to convey both strength and warmth.
• Try to develop the knowing smile that the people mentioned above have. Neffinger describes is as “feeling the bottom eyelid.”
• Stand up straight. Posture is extremely important, but not used enough.
• Use poised but open gestures. Holding the hands up, Neffinger says, conveys warmth and openness. Holding them down conveys the opposite. Similarly, the chopping gesture with the hands conveys strength, as does holding an imaginary ball in hour hands while speaking.
• Replace all the “ums,” and “uhhhs” in your communications with silence. It’s more powerful.
What are the tools you use to project strength and warmth?