PR Agency Pros and the Cure for In-House Anxiety

client-agencyIn-house PR practitioners don’t have it easy, in general. Sometimes they have to deal with a lack of understanding and appreciation for the work they do. (Did I say sometimes?) Sometimes they get recognized internally only when something goes wrong that needs to get fixed, now. Sometimes they’re asked to wear so many hats and expected to be masters at media pitching, crisis management, Facebook, Twitter, speech writing, SEO and measurement dashboards that they run to webinars and conferences to boost their skills, only to be frozen by anxiety when they see how much they have to learn.

Sometimes these in-house PR practitioners—and their senior leaders—need to enlist a PR agency to combat and defeat all of this fatigue and anxiety. What an agency offers is not the brand and reputation of the agency itself—that’s beside the point. It’s the unique mix of skills and experience that an individual agency practitioner can offer that really matters.

In a recent issue of PR News’ premium newsletter, Catherine Frymark, SVP, corporate communications for Discovery Communications, reflected on her time spent working for agencies before joining Discovery. “I don’t regret one minute of starting my career in the agencies,” said Frymark, who was honored as one PR News’ Top Women in PR at a luncheon in New York in February. “In fact, when I am hiring I give a lot of weight to candidates with agency experience. I know they have the fundamentals. They can multitask and serve the client.”

Frymark pointed out that working on a portfolio of brands keeps agency pros fresh. And that’s the key selling point for brands and organizations that may be considering working with PR agencies. Agency pros are like the proverbial shark that Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer discusses in “Annie Hall.” Alvy says that “a relationship is like a shark—it has to constantly move forward or it dies.” If you work at a PR agency, to survive and grow you have no choice but to keep moving forward, from client to client, from skill to skill.

This brings to the in-house team—which may live their brand but may be lacking the outsider’s perspective—a freshness that’s very difficult to achieve inside the brand.

Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI

To Be Human in PR. That Is the Quest.

I was in high school when my Home Economics teacher disclosed that Betty Crocker was not a real person but was a device to personalize the brand. For this naive Jewish girl in Baltimore, it might have been the equivalent of hearing there is no Santa Claus. Betty Crocker was not a real person. I resented that teacher and General Mills for many years, though relished in this newfound knowledge and spread the word about Betty to anyone who would listen.

Fast-forward 30 years and we are still inundated with Betty Crockers. Seemingly real, but not. All smiley faced and perfect, at least in the kitchen.

This dawned on me recently when at a PR News conference two attendees embraced and one said to the other: “I never really thought we’d meet in person. Great to know you are a real person and not just a Twitter handle!” To that, the other said, “Isn’t it great to get out of the office and meet real people?”

(Excuse my nosiness, but I was doing PR News research.) My radar was on for these types of interactions throughout the day of our event, and they were rampant over the course of 6 hours. To wit:

One well-respected industry leader declared proudly to me: “I am no longer using Facebook—I don’t even recognize my own siblings on there. I am going to focus on the here and now.” I get what she was saying. Last week alone, three people asked to be my friend on FB, and I have no clue who they are and what value I bring to them. They are connected to me through other acquaintances who I wouldn’t know if I bumped into them while buying a Betty Crocker mix. But more to the other point, who we are on social media is usually not who we are In Real Life. That means, to some extent, that what our customers are doing and saying online is not necessarily who they are offline. Understanding these nuances requires a human, not a machine. We all know this, though the lure of automated technology and social media communication can blur our vision.

The PR News conference last week was focused on PR Measurement, and there were a lot of great conversations about creating the ultimate PR dashboard, understanding Big Data and proving PR’s worth. It was agreed by most that even though we have an unprecedented array of technologies to assist us, it is beholden on us as brand leaders not to forget the human touch and the human brain. An algorithm can only tell us so much about our audience or our campaigns. A dashboard can reveal a lot, but it takes a human being to sift through the data and make real sense of it.

We can tweet and post and like and follow, but at what cost to human interaction? It is very efficient to use email and social media, but it is divine to sit across from a journalist, a customer, a colleague or any stakeholder and have eye contact, exchange words and ideas, relate in real life.

As we take on Big Data and elaborate dashboards, cloud computing and crowd sourcing, let’s remember to humanize our communications and apply human expertise to PR measurement so we can spot a Betty Crocker when she rears her pretty head.

– Diane Schwartz

 @dianeschwartz

Are You Engaged in Reverse Mentoring?

All the talk about mentoring can make you feel a bit left out. If you are neither a mentor nor a mentee, then what the heck are you doing with yourself?  The truth is, you are probably mentoring or being mentored without even knowing it. It’s the new fabric of our work culture – people helping people. If you’re not guiding someone or asking for help on a regular basis then you are missing out in a significant way.

As communicators, we need to recognize that our pace of advancement might be inversely affected by the age of our mentors. The older you are, the better off you may be if you are mentored by a Millennial.  The concept of Reverse Mentoring, first championed by GE’s Jack Welch more than a decade ago, is not only a great way for senior executives to learn the nuances of social media, it’s a way to bridge the communications gap between generations, increasing morale, retention and knowledge.

Three influential PR executives I met with recently were eager to share their  experiences with reverse mentoring. Said one: “One of my young employees has been showing me how to do a tweet chat. I had no idea.” Said the other: “They are taking over – best to get to know how they think.”  While much of the conversation was centered around social media and younger generations holding comfortably the Digital Native mantle, it goes without saying that Millennials and the Generation Z following them into the workplace are the future leaders, current and future customers and business creators.

Identifying a mentor – formally or informally – who is of another generation than yours and embracing the unique perspective and skills that person holds will take you far.  And many Millennials are schooling the senior set to great effect for the company’s brand, too.

If you’re not engaged in some sort of reverse mentoring, you are not only missing out, you will be spinning your wheels until they eventually fall off.

– Diane Schwartz

 @dianeschwartz

Does Your Post Pass the Elevator Test?

latestWe all have our pet peeves that we cherish and use to define ourselves to ourselves. One of mine is the way people behave when looking at their mobile phones while walking or standing in public. Specifically, people in elevators gazing at their phones.

Perhaps this has happened to you: You’re waiting for an elevator, the doors open, you allow a couple of moments to pass for people to leave the elevator, no one leaves, so you step in just as some mobile-phone addict starts to leave. You nearly collide with that person as he looks up from his phone and starts to exit, and then you get the dirty look.

Each day, as I deal with this inconsiderate behavior, I feel a growing urge to take to Twitter and write, “Fellow citizens, please look up from your phones when elevator doors open to help avoid collisions.” Except I wouldn’t put it so tactfully.

So far I’ve resisted the urge.

I resist the urge by asking myself, “Would I make this statement aloud to strangers in a crowded elevator?”

Of course, I wouldn’t. At least one person would curse me out and the rest would write me off as a nut.

And that’s what Twitter and all other social channels are—elevators packed with strangers. Sharing a link to worthwhile content is one thing. Before expressing a strong opinion about anything, or making a stand about a controversial issue, remember that you’re communicating with strangers who didn’t ask you for your opinion. Would you disparage an NCAA basketball team during March Madness in a crowded elevator, to no one in particular? Maybe you would, but you would have to prepare for and expect some negative consequences. Imagine doing the same thing on Twitter.

Individuals and brands should keep this elevator test in mind before posting anything on social channels. For instance, while no one asked Starbucks to start a national conversation about race in the U.S., it launched its daring online and in-store #RaceTogether campaign, and things got so out of hand that one of its senior PR executives shut down his Twitter account temporarily.

Perhaps if Starbucks had tested this campaign in an elevator filled with strangers, it might have played out differently.

Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI

 

Careful When You ‘Embrace the Hate’

In an episode of The Simpsons, titled “Simpson Tide” (1998), Homer joins the Naval Reserve (don’t ask). During orientation Homer’s drill sergeant gives him the business. He gets in his grill, and barks, “I don’t like you!”

Homer responds with a sweet smile and puppy dog eyes. “But I like you,” Homer says. The drill sergeant, of course, is miffed, having been neutralized by Homer’s kindness.

It’s Homer’s version of embracing the hate. Now, 17 years later, as social channels explode, embracing the hate may be the next hot messaging strategy in PR and marketing.

I was reminded of Homer’s actions after seeing a Wall Street Journal report late last month that Progressive has started to reach out to Twitter users to ask whether it could use their tweets for a “project” the insurance giant is working on.

However, it seems that Progressive is only interested in integrating tweets that disparage the company’s longtime spokeswoman, Flo, the Journal said. “My idea of a nightmare situation is being force-fed Parmesan bread bites while tied to a chair in Flo’s Progressive Torture chamber,” reads one tweet. Progressive responded by asking for permission to use the tweet and for the user’s email address.

Progressive’s move is in keeping with an accelerating trend in the marketplace: embracing the hate.

With the proliferation of social networks, it’s the rare brand or organization that hasn’t incurred the wrath of consumers upset or perturbed about the company’s behavior or actions. More often that not, tweets or Facebook comments that disparage a brand come from John and Jane Q. Public being snarky because they can. Either way, it’s a hallmark of online communications.

At the outset of social media—when consumers talked smack about a company—some brand managers would first try and determine how much damage the offending comment might cause and then possibly reach out to that individual to try and remedy the situation and mitigate the hate.

That’s one solution. But Progressive and other brands like Dove  may have the right idea. Instead of trying to appease consumers, why not neutralize them?

By recruiting consumers to include their “creative” in a new marketing campaign—no matter how nasty it may be—brands demonstrate a warts-and-all approach. That makes it harder for consumers to express hate and/or get on their soapbox about every little thing.

With that in mind, here are two ways for PR executives to embrace the hate—and possibly add a fresh (and all-too-human) approach to their business communications.

> Be vigilant, yet selective in reaching out. Hate on social media comes in all shapes and sizes. Tap into those tweets and social comments that may be critical of your brand but are delivered in a tongue-firmly-tucked-in-cheek style and show a flair for humor. It’s a pretty fine line between funny and down right malicious. PR managers have to make sure they don’t hurt their brands (or shareholders) with an embrace-the-hate strategy.

> Be transparent about your intentions. When you do reach out to the haters, keep the communication simple. When consumers respond to your message, make sure you clearly spell out how (and where) the tweets will be used and what consumers might get in return. This is probably an area, as good as any, in which PR and legal should work closely. When getting into what is a particularly gray (and nascent) area, you have to be extremely clear about your intentions. You don’t want the haters to get the impression that they are now quasi marketers for the company. Or maybe you do.

Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1

It’s Not Over ‘Til It’s Over, and 4 Other Takeaways From Super Bowl XLIX

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New England Patriots rookie Malcolm Butler makes a game-saving interception. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

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. 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

@dianeschwartz

5 Steps to Becoming an Effective Writer (and a Better PR Pro)

In Dog We TrustWhen a Florida sheriff’s office recently noticed its new crest-engraved office rug read “In Dog We Trust,” rather than “In God We Trust” it turned a $500 typo into a nearly $10k opportunity. It held an auction for the grammatically incorrect rug in which proceeds would go to the local animal rescue organization. If we could raise $9,650 (which the sheriff’s office did) for every typo, grammatical error and poor turn of phrase, bad writing and editing could actually be spun into a rather beneficial side business. Alas, poor writing or sloppy editing persists among the best brands and among the best of us. It just happens. But we can do better.

It certainly doesn’t look good for communicators when a press release is riddled with errors, when an email to a reporter is lacking punctuation and clarity or when a business memo is strung together with disparate ideas and fails to cut to the chase. Spell-check cannot save a poor communicator.

There are a few quick fixes to our post-college national writing problem:

Find an Editor: Someone on your team should serve as your editor. Never let a press release go on the wires or an important document be distributed without another set of eyes. Don’t just have anyone edit your copy – identify strong writers who have a discerning eye. Just as importantly, track the changes your editor makes so you can see for yourself what is being changed and understand your writing weaknesses.

Read Two Great Articles a Day: Whether online or in print, read something in the news or within your markets and observe how the writer grabs your interest in the first 15 seconds and how the article articulates its main points and concludes the piece. You are reading a great story, and as a storyteller you can be as interesting as that journalist.

Let Your Best Work Marinate: By this I mean don’t rush your messaging. You need to let your writing evolve over the course of a few hours or even a few days. Come back to the piece and you will always find it needs polishing and you will embrace the act of polishing because a sparkling piece of work will get noticed.

Elevator Pitches Have Legs: Sometimes an overused reference is overused because it works. If you think in terms of how you’d convey to a colleague the main points of your press release, your content marketing piece, your client email on an elevator ride from the lobby to the 10th floor, what would you say? What you come up with forms the headline and lead and helps crystallize your message. Elevator pitches get easier the more you choose to take the ride. Which leads me to the last piece of advice:

Write Your Heart Out: While writing well is not yet a lost art, the less we write complete sentences (thank you, texting!) and the less we hold up great PR writing as a benchmark of communications excellence, the more likely we are to lose ground with our stakeholders. Take your writing seriously. Craft something interesting every day. And prepare to be edited. It’s part of the writing process.

- Diane Schwartz

 @dianeschwartz

PS: Check out our PR News Writing Workshop on Feb 10 in San Fran. I hope you’ll be able to attend!

 

 

 

 

4 Tips for Producing (Less Static) Podcasts

There are countless brands and organizations that are making intelligent use of their social platforms. Companies are deploying Facebook, Twitter et al to build closer ties to their constituents, promote a new product or service or participate in a conversation in a manner that can help to humanize the brand.

However, for every piece of social media content that adds value to, say, a media relations campaign or events marketing effort, there is another piece of social content that is at best, inane and, at worst, reprehensible. The freewheeling (ephemeral) nature of social media also makes it problematic for people to retain information, much less consider a purchase.

Podcasting is a different pitch. Where social messaging/marketing tends can be scattered, podcasts are singular, with a beginning, middle and an end. Sure, people get stoked about online contests and brand messages that might ultimately save them a little bit of money. But such efforts have a scattershot approach.

In contrast, podcasts lend themselves to plot, personality and, depending on the level of storytelling, character development. They also dovetail perfectly with what we used to call appointment viewing.

Take the wildly popular Serial, a podcast exploring a murder mystery, which ranked number one on iTunes even before its November 2014 debut.

The passion for Serial reminds us of Steve Allen’s famous quote, “Radio is the theater of the mind; television is the theater of the mindless.”

Now comes word that Reddit has rolled out its own official podcast. The podcast is designed to tell the story behind the stories on its home page. That’s smart positioning on Reddit’s part, taking a backstory approach to its podcast strategy.

But whether it’s Reddit, your own website or a dedicated app, PR pros could boost their value—and better distinguish themselves from rivals—by developing a dedicated podcast series.

Here are few tips to consider for producing quality podcasts:

> Find good pipes in-house. Perhaps the most important aspect of developing a podcast is finding someone with a mellifluous voice. Do a deep dive to locate people (employees, partners) who are often complimented on the sound of their voice and can easily steer (but not command) a conversation.

> Don’t bore the audience. Consumers have an infinite number of choices for how to spend their time online. You have to take a thematic approach that’s designed to entertain, enlighten and inform. Don’t take the easy route by producing podcasts that take a prosaic look at products and services. Find the backstory for some of your biggest successes (or failures). Be candid, not corporate.

> Take it outside the four walls. Your podcasts need to be anchored to a specific subject matter, of course. But the beauty of radio and podcasts is to veer off course every now and again and, within reason, talk about most anything under the sun. This can go a long way toward personalizing the program. By opening up the conversation you might also stumble on an expression or idea that crystallizes your company and keeps listeners coming back.

> Make it immersive. If you’re willing to go to the time and expense of creating a podcast series, make sure it’s participatory for your audience. Have people call in to broaden the discussion. Invite some of your best customers or clients to appear on the show. Go “on location” to where your audience(s) may congregate. Make sure the community is vested in the podcast.

What would you add to the list?

Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1

All ‘Signs’ Point to Brand Awareness Success for McDonald’s

mcdonalds-signs-hed-2015What is the goal of advertising and PR? To get noticed and drive profits, right?

In the realm of getting noticed–otherwise referred to as brand awareness by non-civilians in communications—the McDonald’s “Signs” ad, which ran during the Golden Globes Awards and NFL playoff games this past weekend, is a resounding success. Whether or not it drives sales is for the ad agency of record and in-house communications team to prove weeks and months from now.

During the signature TV events on Sunday, Jan. 11, McDonald’s ran an ad showing signs outside franchise restaurants with inspiring messages of solidarity for local customers (“A Little Lovin Can Change a Lot,” “Hug Those Dads,” “Welcome Home 442nd Fighter Wing”) backed by maudlin music. At the close of the commercial there’s text that says “see the stories behind the signs,” with a link to the McDonald’s Tumblr blog.

Reaction to the spot has been mixed, the media has decreed. Some think it’s crass to align caring and sharing with a multinational brand one might associate with bad eating habits, obesity and low wages. Well, you can’t blame people for not lovin’ it, but if you focus on the goals of advertising and PR you can’t help but be impressed.

Adweek reported that 45,792 tweets mentioned McDonald’s on Jan. 11, “up from roughly 36,000 on Jan. 4 and 27,000 on Dec. 28.” Adweek also said that although the ad was divisive, sentiment dipped only “slightly” when comparing the three days. Meanwhile, the Signs ad on YouTube has topped a million views in just a couple of days. So we’re talking about a pretty nice interplay among paid, owned and earned media.

What’s not to love, if you’re in the business of selling burgers?

—Follow Steve Goldstein, @SGoldsteinAI

15 Easy Changes to Transform Your Career this Year

Forget new year’s resolutions about losing weight, completing your first novel, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail while learning how to play guitar. Those sorts of resolutions just set you up for disappointment. It’s time to get realistic. As far as career resolutions go, there’s no shortage of things we can do better. As communicators, we are fortunate to be working in a field that is constantly changing and therefore challenging our skills and patience. With that in mind, I put together 15 activities that can set you up for a more gratifying year on the job. This doesn’t mean you can’t still try to master the art of French cooking or call your in-laws once a week. Give at least a few of these a try in the coming week:

1. Become data savvy not data obsessive: understand what all the hullabaloo is about “data” in your organization and then learn how to leverage it for good, not just because.

2. Tell a good story: that’s one reason why we’re in PR, to tell great stories. If it means re-reading your favorite Rudyard Kipling short story to remind you of great storytelling, well that wouldn’t be so painful.

3. Foster a relationship: whether it’s with a co-worker, a reporter, a client or a customer, get out there and get to know someone new.

4. Look up: practice proper protocol and be in the moment by not staring down at your phone while in a meeting or in social interactions.

5. Find a mentee: help a budding communicator navigate the increasingly complex areas of PR. Seek a mentee through your own organization or through industry groups like PRSSA.

6. Give your customer a face and a name: find out who your optimal customer is (or your client’s optimal customer) and tack a photo of that person by your desk. Gear your efforts toward him or her.

7. Measure twice, cut once: best to know what the key metrics are before you launch a campaign or initiative and use those as your guide; it saves you much time and heartache in the long term.

8. Write something: practice writing every day; the more you write, the better you get at writing. Volunteer to write a blog post for your company or to guest post for a client; write an article in your company newsletter or update your group or clients with a well-crafted email memo.

9. Switch jobs (for a day) with IT: gain a better understanding of what your digital team does every day by spending some time dealing with people like us who are always needing something from them.

10. Get your policies and plans in order: do you have a social media policy? An employee handbook? A crisis plan? Have you read or updated them? Now is a good time to brush up on the dry stuff.

11. Audit your assets: take stock of your content libraries (if you have them), your photo archives, press release templates, review your About Us web page, and other assets that could come in handy in the event of a crisis, merger, acquisition, corporate change or last-minute request from a reporter.

12. Drop a social media platform: do you really need to be on Pinterest? Maybe that stagnant LinkedIn Group is making your brand look bad, not good. No need to be there if your audience is not visiting.

13. Adopt a social media platform: try out a new platform – whether it’s Snapchat, tumblr or Google+, test new social media waters to develop a stronger sense of where your should invest time and resources.

14. Hand-write a thank you note:  A few times a month, thank a customer, a client, a colleague, a reporter, an analyst; be on the mental lookout for those people who are helping you and write them a note. Your letter will stand out and all parties will be grateful. (Don’t forget to mail it.)

15. Advocate for PR: I’m not telling you anything new when I say that Public Relations as a discipline is only as good as the disciples. Become an advocate for measurable PR strategies and tactics that move the needle in a positive way. Share your best practices of the trade and spread the word about the power of Public Relations.

Happy new year, friends of PR News!

- Diane Schwartz

@dianeschwartz

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