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
In an episode of “Family Guy,” Stewie is hobnobbing at a party when he announces that “you’re going to love this” as a prelude to a politically incorrect joke.
But before he says anything, he goes outside the door to see if the coast is clear. Then he runs out to the street to see if anybody is listening. Ditto at the beach and, for good measure, cow pasture.
Convinced he’s well out of earshot, Stewie scurries back to the party and says, “So these two black guys walk into a bar…” Of course, the instant he starts to tell the joke a black man pops out of a potted plant nearby and asks, “Hey, what are you guys talking about?”
I was reminded of the episode when I saw the picture of Senator John McCain playing poker on his iPhone during the Senate committee hearing on foreign relations discussing the potential use of force against Syria.
The picture, which was reportedly taken by a Washington Post photographer, is yet another indication of how we’re all just a click (or tweet) away from living in our own personal “Truman Show.”
McCain probably thought he could squeeze in a few hands of online poker during the hearing and nobody would be the wiser.
McCain, who tried to make light of the situation with a less-than-funny tweet, is probably still wiping the egg off his face. One of the most vocal supporters for the U.S. to take action against Syria, McCain’s gaffe during the hearing could cost him some credibility.
Call it a cautionary tale for communicators and the people they represent.
We’ve all heard the expression, “The Mic Is Always Hot.”
Now PR execs can deposit another aphorism into the memory bank: “The Camera Is Always On.”
As hand-held devices get more and more sophisticated and micro cameras become ubiquitous, PR pros need to be metaphysically aware of the growing potential of embarrassing themselves, their brands or their clients—and all of it being caught on camera or video.
As we adjust to an increasingly digital age, the only place that a PR pro (or senior executive) can speak freely is probably a hermetically sealed tank, and even that may be questionable.
The point here is not for communicators (and their clients) to play mum when they’re out in public or not be themselves; that wouldn’t come off too well with constituents. Plus, it would be bad for business.
But, unlike, say, five years ago, communicators can no longer take for granted that if they’re in a sealed-off environment their actions (like playing with their iPhone during an important meeting or making vituperative comments) will not somehow get recorded for the masses to misconstrue and/or ridicule.
Privacy may be going the way of the Edsel, of course, but you’re still in control of your actions. When you’re in the public domain, focus on the work at hand and don’t slide into behavior that would embarrass your mother. Don’t let the cameras win.
Follow Mathew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1
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
When I was a child, my mother always corrected me when I used the word “uh” and “like,” as in the sentence, “Uh, I am not sure, like I really want to do this but I don’t know how.” I have made up that sentence for great effect (hopefully) to illustrate how uneducated one can sound when using unnecessary, filler words. Kids can get away with “um” and “like” and “you know” – then one day, kids become directors, managers, account executives, spokespeople, and colleagues in a professional environment. What you say and how you say it starts to matter. Whereas a mother would implore her child to not use “uh” and the child will roll his eyes and still say it, it’s unlikely your boss or your colleague will correct your language. It would just seem rude and make you feel bad. So you are left to your own devices, to self-correct. How many times in a given day do you think you fill your dialogue with these words:
- You Know
- Ta (a mangled variation of “to”)
- Honestly (as in “Honestly, what I think you need to do)
- I mean
The last word I’d like to bring to your attention is “but”. It’s a fine word and grammatically acceptable. But it’s ripe with nuance. Try, for a day, to replace the word “but” with “and”. I bet you will come across as kinder and less contrary. Consider these possibly familiar exchanges:
“I just read your report and found it very interesting. It’s well-written and thought-out. But you are missing a key idea.”
An alternative without “but”:
“I just read your report and found it very interesting. It’s well-written and thought-out and if we were to add a few more sentences on (fill in the blank), it would be ready to distribute.”
Response: “Great! Thank you!”
“How does this outfit look on me?”
Response: “It looks nice, but you might want to loosen the belt.”
An alternative without “but”:
“How does this outfit look on me?”
Response: “It looks nice, and I like the shoes, too!”
Try replacing the word “but” with “and”. It may do wonders for your relationships, you know?
Are there are other “filler” words that should be added to this list? Please chime in.
- Diane Schwartz
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.”
Whether you’re a Harry Potter fan or not, you know who J.K. Rowling is. I bet you never heard of Robert Galbraith or “The Cuckoo’s Calling” until it was revealed on Monday that Robert is Rowling and that “Cuckoo” is about….
Forget what the book is about – the news here is that Rowling penned the book under a male pseudonym and a reporter for the London Sunday Times revealed this past week that she was the author. The second of Rowling’s adult novels, this one was well received by critics but sold only 1,500 copies since its April release. That is about 450 million less copies than her Harry Potter books. Unsurprisingly, since the big reveal, sales of “Cuckoo’s Calling” have increased 500% and it’s near the top of Amazon’s best-seller list.
Rowling told The Times of London that the experience was worthwhile: “I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer, because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience. It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”
The skeptic in me (and it’s a big part of me) says this was magnificently orchestrated by Rowling and her publisher. After basking in the glow of every single Harry Potter book, then writing adult fiction (“The Casual Vacancy” that can best be described as “meh”) what’s a famous author to do other than test a new genre and gauge public reaction without exposing her true identity? She knew that a good number of Muggles would gravitate to a crime mystery “Cuckoo’s Calling” written by a certain J.K. Rowling.
These shenanigans got me thinking about whether I would go incognito to test a wild idea, start down a new career path or pen a ground-breaking manifesto. Let’s assume I’m a well-known person with a tremendous following (neither is true). And I am sick and tired of the “hype” and “expectation.” Would I have the courage of my conviction and let the chips fall where they may? Or would I come up with a new pen name (just as Rowling, and Stephen King, Anne Rice and others before them) and time the unmasking and glorious hype just so?
I’d like to think I’d use my real identity. But it’s hard to imagine the kind of success that allows the freedom to choose and the preordained acceptance of that choice.
What would you do?
- Diane Schwartz
On Twitter: @dianeschwartz