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?
It’s said that we speak an average of 16,000 words each day. That’s a lot of talking. As communicators, we appreciate fine words and clever turns of phrases. But on this day after a long holiday, still recovering from a turkey and pumpkin pie stupor and constant conversation with distant relatives, I challenge you to insert into your dialogue or work- day imagination at least two of the quotes below from the blockbuster movie The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
On the surface, there’s little we can find in common between the roles of Katniss, Peeta, President Snow and Haymitch Abernathy and our role as communicators. But scratch just a little beneath that surface and you may find that the lines below could be very helpful as you get your week off to a fiery start:
“No waving and smiling this time. I want you to look straight ahead as if the audience and this whole event are beneath you.” (possible scene: you are at a meeting with new competitors)
“Remember who the real enemy is.” (scene: at the meeting above you realize your competitors are not really your enemies)
“You’ve given them an opportunity. They just have to be brave enough to take it.” (scene: you give your team a challenging project to take on)
“Chins up, smiles on!” (scene: instead of ending your meeting with “OK, that’s all” you decide to shock the attendees with this uplifting, inspirational decree)
“From now on, your job is to be a distraction so people forget what the real problems are.” (scene: you’re moved from PR to HR)
“So far I’m not overwhelmed by our choices.” (scene: you’re at a business lunch at a restaurant with limited, unappealing menu choices)
“I wish I could freeze this moment, right here, right now, and live in it forever.” (scene: the media loves your story idea and you are inundated with interview requests)
“This is no place for a Girl on fire.” (scene: Katniss or someone similar to her shows up to your afternoon meeting)
“Convince me.” (scene: the response from your boss after asking for a bigger PR budget in 2014)
You might be thinking your job is not scripted nor are you an actor in a major motion picture. But after testing these quotes on your unsuspecting colleagues and peers you’ll realize that the Hunger Games isn’t as fantastical as originally thought.
– Diane Schwartz
(Join me on Twitter)
It’s not everyday that PR is taken to task for sending unsolicited emails to reporters. Oh, wait – it is every day that this happens. And sometimes the magnifying glass is placed directly over the Public Relations trade, as is the case this week with an unflattering article by The New York Times’ Haggler (Pulitzer Prize winning reporter David Segal) that took to task emails the columnist received and persistently tracked back to an industry vendor’s media database. It doesn’t help that the headline is”Swatting at a Storm of Public Relations Spam.”
Whether fair or not, this sort of coverage sets us up for the defensive. Even with fantastic media databases, dedicated PR reps tracking down the right beat reporters, and guerilla PR efforts targeted by time, day, demo and topic, no media relations effort is perfect. And to blame a database for an incorrect email campaign is akin to blaming the tools, not the carpenter, for shoddy construction. But we can all agree that a bad PR pitch is a bad PR pitch in whatever form, format or formality it’s received.
Email remains the “killer app” for communicating with our stakeholders. By “killer” it can also mean relationship killer. The result of targeting the wrong reporter too many times, or the right reporter with the wrong pitch, usually is one of nonchalance — of just ignoring, deleting, opting out. The Haggler is an extreme version of one recipient revolting, perhaps for the sake of writing a column about it.
At the PR News Writing Bootcamp last week in Chicago, a panel of reporters reviewed mock email pitches from an audience of PR pros and implored the audience to keep their email pitches simple, short and crafted with an obvious reason for the reporter to care. The journalists on this panel — from Chicago newspapers and a mommy blog — were characteristically cynical. They are inundated with email pitches daily, and as with press releases, you have 7 seconds, at most, to get their attention. The panelists advised to think of an email pitch like it’s a movie trailer: grab the viewer’s attention but don’t give away the plot.
Assuming you have a story to tell, you still need to give the reporter something. Here are a few somethings to consider:
- An exclusive interview with the CEO or top executive
- An interesting infographic or chart/graphic
- New research or data to bolster the proposed article
- A video clip
- An invitation to a press-only event
- Links (not attachments) to information that will help the reporter do her job better
- If not an exclusive interview, a commitment to an executive interview at the reporter’s convenience
Before you send out your next email pitch, make sure “the give” is in there. Media Relations is the art and science of give and take.
- Diane Schwartz
PS: I’ll be at the PR NewsMedia Relations Conference on Dec 12 at the National Press Club. If you’re attending, DM on Twitter so we can set up a time to chat in person.
Earlier in my career I worked with an editor for a media magazine who moved into PR after the magazine went defunct. We’ve kept in touch, him pitching stories to me for media-company clients, and me always trusting his judgment and willing to take a call.
Why was I so willing? Because he’s a thoughtful PR guy who helps connect me to interesting people and to stories my audience wants to read.
I was thinking about that guy the other day and my thought process then extended to stereotypes—of PR people and reporters.
I’ve learned a lot of things in 12 months covering the PR business, and my experiences have proven many of those common stereotypes wrong. I thought I’d outline a few of the stereotypes and take a look at how perception differs from reality for both reporters and PR people.
How reporters see themselves
• Journalists see themselves iconoclasts—but not Quixotic ones.
• Reporters think they’re fundamentally moral—in the words of the old expression, “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”
• They view themselves as wise and hard-boiled.
• They identify with skepticism—they would never accept gullibility.
• They see themselves as real and down-to-earth, unpretentious, even in fashion. Journalists invented business casual as a dress code.
How reporters see PR people
• Sometimes reporters call PR people flacks, and it’s not meant as a compliment.
• The columnist Mike Lupica (among many other journalists) calls PR people “mouthpieces.”
• Reporters see PR people as mostly blocking access, not providing it.
• Reporters think PR people cause their sources to speak in “talking points,” not provide real information.
• Reporters very often see PR people as bossy, officious and shallow in their most benign incarnation, and sometimes obnoxious or worse.
Some stereotype-busting things I’ve learned
• PR is one of the most intensive practice-oriented professions I’ve been associated with. Like law and other professions, PR pros split their skills into various practices—crisis management, media relations, corporate social responsibility and more, and they’re incredibly conscientious about education and advancing their skills.
• PR people (at our PR News events, at any rate) are engaging, courteous, smart and intensely focused on improving their skills.
• Reporters, in fact, can be amazingly gullible. Recently, word got back to me that some industry executive said all you had to do to get good press from us was to take one of our people out to dinner. I don’t believe that’s true at all, but I know from first-hand observation that in lots of other cases, it is.
• Journalistic skepticism sometimes morphs into raw cynicism.
• Reporters are rarely fashionable. In fact, it’s usually the opposite, truth be told.
Butterflies in your stomach. Dry mouth. Fantasy of escaping through the back door. It’s inevitable: at some point in your career, you’ll need to speak in front of an audience. Whether at a small meeting, a conference, a general session, on a panel, or on your own. For most of us, it’s about getting out of our comfort zone. If it’s any consolation, the number-one fear of Americans is Public Speaking. Death is the number-2 fear. So you are not alone (until you die). Based on my own experiences and interviews with countless public speakers over the past year, I offer these nines tips to help you get through your next speaking gig with flying colors:
1. Research your audience: why are they there, what are their job responsibilities, how knowledgeable are they of the topic you’ll be speaking about? If possible, ask the event producer to survey the audience in advance w/a few questions that will help you tailor your presentation.
2. Avoid death by PowerPoint. Put another way, don’t talk them to sleep. Slides are important but they should be springboards to your speech and not littered with words and cheesy clip art. Large point size, consistent style and about half the slide blank are the rules. Show some video if you can – but not of cute puppies or kittens, unless you’re speaking to an animal rights group.
3. Master your content:. a corollary to tip #1, speak of what you know. You’ll be more relaxed and confident if you know your material. If you’re asked to speak about a topic that is complicated and not in your wheelhouse, decline the invite.
4. Interact with your audience. Build a quick community with the attendees and encourage questions.
5. Limit talking about yourself. You know the speaker bio provided to the audience in advance? They already know who you are. Make it about them.
6. Wear your storytelling hat. There’s nothing better than a story to illustrate your point. That is what the audience will remember. Bring one great story to your speech – not 3 mediocre ones – and you will connect with your audience.
7. Own your content. I was listening to a speaker recently whose entire presentation was about quoting other authors and experts and not sharing an original thought. Find something unique and original to say to your audience. There’s a reason you were asked to take the stage.
8. Remember social media. Be careful what you say and how you say it. One off-color quote can go viral on social media and affect your reputation and your organization’s.
9. Don’t picture your audience naked. This is an old bit of advice predicated on the notion that the naked attendee is more vulnerable than you and so you have the upper hand. This advice doesn’t hold true — better to picture your audience thinking positive thoughts about you, and cheering you on. The crowd wants you to succeed, they are rooting for you. That‘s the naked truth.
What tips would you add to this list?
– Diane Schwartz
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.