We’ve reached the point in summer when the accumulation of heat and humidity slows the reflexes and thought processes. This is when stories about shark attacks dominate news cycles. Calculated, outrageous statements by politicians running for national office barely raise an eyebrow.
As professional communicators know, it always takes a lot to cut through. In midsummer, it seems, unless you’ve got a video of a great white shark chomping on a surfer’s leg, you’re better off waiting until just after Labor Day to launch a campaign or pitch journalists.
You may not have that privilege, though. If you’re on the clock, your job is to get coverage for your organization, attract new customers to your brand or donors to your nonprofit, protect and enhance corporate reputation—despite the season and capacity of living creatures to assimilate anything new in consistent 91 degree heat.
So, how to cut through with your brand messages when sluggishness reigns? A few suggestions:
1. Use yourself as a test case. Unless you live in San Francisco, where it’s currently a foggy 61 degrees (and my old hometown and destination on Aug. 5-6 for PR News’ Google Boot Camp and Big 4 Social Media Conference), you’re either dragging your knuckles on the melting sidewalks outside or shivering inside as your sweat freezes from the blast of office air conditioning. What kind of content—aside from anything NSFW—is catching your eye on social, in your email inbox, on any kind of screen or printed material? This being summer, it’s likely that anything to do with vacations, time off, food, cold beverages and socializing with friends are the best lures. Try to find ways to connect your communications and business goals with where people’s desires are, if not their physical selves.
2. Find an excuse to use pictures of animals. I can’t tell you how many speakers at PR News conferences have closed their presentations by saying “and if all else fails try this,” and then shown a shot of a cute puppy, kitten or marmot. They’re only half-joking. Pictures of animals will always cut through. It’s no accident that Cecil the lion has shoved aside Donald Trump as the number one news story here at the end of July. Someone in your organization has a new kitten or puppy. Now is the time to put that critter to work.
3. Follow my example and make sure you include “shark” in any headline and “shark attacks” in any opening paragraph.
—Steve Goldstein, @SGoldsteinAI
The lines are blurry. As a communicator you are usually selling something – an idea, a story, an interview to the media, a budget, a campaign. To close on that effort – to get the story, win the account, score a larger budget – is a similar feeling your Marketing counterpart has when her campaign idea is approved or when a customer buys the product based on her messaging. And the salesperson down the hall from you? He is always prospecting, aims to be in front of clients or at least on the phone with them, understanding their pain points and their spending limits.
These three levers of Communications – PR, Marketing, Sales — are at their best when they’re working together, not separately. Most practitioners and strategists agree with the premise, but the underlying pain points, frustrations, budgetary constraints, conflicting goals may stop the three from even wanting to work together. I’ve posed the question in a previous post, Will PR and Marketing Get Married One Day? A lot of you responded and as a whole we’re in favor of this matrimony. But how about we go on a few dates first?
The best communicators will be the ones who have a firm grasp on Marketing, who partner with Sales to help close business, and who are pushing for consistent messaging across this spectrum. If you shy away from Sales or snub your nose at Marketing (that department that steals some of your budget), then you will be OK, possibly. That is to say, you can get by. But to be an extraordinary communications executive you need to spend some time in their shoes. Here are three easy things you can do in the next 30 days to narrow the gap and broaden your organization’s (and your own) opportunities:
Lead a Sales Call: Try to sell something to a client: ask your sales dept if you can sell your company’s service or product to one prospect. Set up the appointment, do your research, lead the meeting, close the business, send out the proposal, wait for the signature. Sometimes you’ll be waiting longer than expected for a signed contract and that’s part of the process and why the rewards taste so sweet.
Be a Marketer: Sit in on Marketing meetings and listen without your PR hat on. Understand how they measure success and manage budgets. Ask to work on a campaign in which you need to partner with the PR team. It’s not always easy to collaborate and see the other side. As a marketer, you may want to spend more on b-to-c advertising while PR is pushing for a media relations push with the trade press. Find common ground and share in the hits and misses.
Break Bread & Barriers: Set up monthly Integrated Communications Breakfasts. An early morning meeting of the minds where you are fresh and prepared could work wonders. Share current initiatives, report on performance of campaigns, ask for help and guidance. This will increase transparency and lead to more collaboration.
There’s nothing like coffee and bagels to smear away the friction that exists when three departments are used to eating alone.
– Diane Schwartz
The moving company that assisted with our house move last week sent us a hard-working crew. Hauling boxes and furniture to and fro, they didn’t spend much time chatting, but when they did they usually framed it in a question: “How am I doing?”
When Danny, the head mover, first asked me that question I thought he was asking how I was doing. After all, moving out of a house is stressful! Then I realized he wanted to know if he and his crew were meeting my expectations. Were they careful, efficient, polite? Danny wanted this feedback. He stood in my kitchen holding a big box labeled “Dishes,” and looked me in the eyes as he awaited my reply.
“How am I doing?”
After hearing from me that he was doing a great job, he and his crew continued the laborious task ahead of them. A few hours later, Danny asked me the same question and this time I thought harder about it and provided some specific feedback having to do with not scratching a certain wall. Over the course of this 10-hour whirlwind round-trip relationship we had with our movers, “How am I doing” was asked at least a handful of times.
In the course of a week, a month, a year, how often do you check in, one on one, with your customers, business partners, clients, journalists, colleagues and stakeholders and as them “How am I doing”? We are more accustomed to asking “How are you?” then we are “How am I doing?” It seems the former is more about them and the latter can appear self-serving or insecure. But what you’re really asking is “Are you satisfied and can I do better for you?” Of course, you have to be prepared to heed the feedback, which is sometimes not what you expected. That’s the point – and it’s well worth the heavy lifting afterwards.
– Diane Schwartz
It’s not every day that you get a free scoop of ice cream with your bacon and eggs, unless you’re eating breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s. The iconic Chicago diner has been surprising first-time customers and delighting return diners with this extra touch. When the waitress handed me the check, then asked if I wanted some ice cream, I looked around as if I had won the lottery. The last thing I really wanted was ice cream after a hearty breakfast but I didn’t realize how much I loved being surprised by the offer.
Surprise: it’s surprisingly powerful!
When was the last time you offered your brand’s version of ice cream with breakfast? When you provided an unexpected benefit or show of appreciation for your stakeholders, be it a customer, a reporter, an employee, an investor, a client? Even the most beloved brands shouldn’t assume they are good to go with their customers, who are just a click or step away from turning their attention to your competitor. MasterCard is just one of many smart brands employing “surprise and delight” to build customer loyalty. Through its “Priceless Surprises” campaigns, cardholders have randomly received a gift, such as a meeting with Justin Timberlake, and are encouraged to send surprise gifts to friends and family (using MasterCard).
When Tania Luna, co-author of “Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected,” keynoted our PR News Digital PR Conference earlier this month in Miami, attendees expected her to talk about how to communicate via surprise tactics given the name of her new book. What the audience didn’t expect was to be handed a pack of Pop Rocks and asked to place the fizzy crystals in their mouth and create a symphonic sound with fellow attendees, with Luna as the conductor. “At the count of 3, this side of the room should start swirling their Pop Rocks in their mouth,” Luna instructed. Amazingly, the attendees exploded with glee and there was a communal sense of pleasant surprise at the activity, the nostalgic quality of Pop Rocks and the silliness they found themselves in. They weren’t expecting this activity at a PR conference. Surprise!
In a recent interview with PR News’ Steve Goldstein, Luna offered 9 surprise tactics and implored communicators to remember that acting human is different than being human. She suggests that communicators “scriptease” to build trust with stakeholders, especially with the media. Put your scripted pitch aside and just have a conversation with the reporter like you would with a friend.
And never stop surprising and delighting: To wit, if you’re waiting in the long line at Lou Mitchell’s or as you’re leaving the restaurant, there’s an endless bowl of fresh donut holes for the taking. Just another way for this brand to sweeten the experience.
- Diane Schwartz
PR News’ millennial advisory board members were pretty emphatic when they told us Twitter is the social networking platform they use the most in their work lives. Nothing else comes close. These dozen or so PR pros at b2c and b2b companies, nonprofits and agencies rely mostly on Twitter to communicate brand messages on social and to stay on top of news and trends.
Nevertheless, judging by recent events, Twitter’s future is bleak. Current CEO Dick Costolo has one foot out the door, Google may or may not be looking to acquire the company (“absorb, digest and atomize” might be more appropriate than “acquire”) and, to add to the air of doom, Snoop Dogg has offered himself up as the new CEO.
The problem in a nutshell: Twitter isn’t that good at being profitable.
So it may be time to start imagining your life without Twitter. I know, it’s not exactly like imagining your life without easy access to clean drinking water, but it would be a severe rupture in your daily routine just the same. If you’re at an agency, what kind of billable time would fill the hole left by Twitter? If you’re at a brand or nonprofit and 90% of your communications on social are on Twitter, to which alternate platform would you try to migrate your community?
Better to ask these questions now, before Snoop calls his first board meeting.
Follow Steve Goldstein (while you can): @SGoldsteinAI
In-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
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
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
We 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
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