When to Apologize

As I write this I’m watching a report on MSNBC criticizing the apology issued by 60 Minutes for a report last month about the attack on the embassy in Benghazi.

The apology, by correspondent Lara Logan, was not enough—that was the consensus.

“It was not nearly satisfying,” said guest David Brock. “I thought it was 60 Minutes, not 60 Seconds.” The show is all about holding sources accountable, Brock said, and 60 Minutes should do the same for itself.

This has been a big week for apologies. President Obama apologized for the bumpy rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Home Depot apologized for a racist tweet.

And 60 Minutes still hasn’t been able to contain the damage.

Public apologies by organizations almost always fall to the communications team, the PR pros. And there’s plenty of scholarship on how to do apologies best, and put unfortunate mistakes behind your company or organization. Among those things are to act immediately and to commit to an investigation.

But I sometimes think the only way to really handle apologies is to not make mistakes in the first place. Seriously. Think about it. In politics and business, if you make a mistake, apologies are demanded. The volume gets higher and higher, and the demands more hysterical. It’s rare indeed that you can tough things out, although that sometimes does happen.

In politics, there’s an “apology game,” where one side demands an apology for some perceived transgression, whether there’s an actual offense or not.

And then there’s the apology trap—whatever the offense, no apology ever clears the record. Even when apologies are accepted, mistakes are never forgotten. Years—decades—later, whatever the initial incident was, it morphs into a “scandal.” It will remain on your record forever, dredged up in the media whenever it suites the story.

So if you’re a PR pro, what to do? Here’s my advice: Don’t apologize as a way to placate others. Don’t expect absolution, because it won’t come. Apologize because you know you (or your organization) messed up and that it’s the right thing to do. Period.

—Tony Silber
@tonysilber

What’s First, Technology or Content?

I’ve been thinking lately about how media is moving increasingly toward a greater technology dependence. I’ve read about how investment dollars, especially in Silicon Valley, where so much media-related innovation is occurring, steer towards technology solutions for media consumers. New utilities—new ways to interact with content—seems to be more important than the content itself.

Think about the major social media and many of the new online-only media businesses like TripAdvisor and Yelp. User interfaces, tools, analytics and more are the difference-makers. They create no content on their own, really, but they have massive audiences. Google commands more ad dollars than the whole magazine and newspaper industries combined.

Which for me (and for PR communicators) raises an interesting question: Should media companies—and the PR departments and firms that create brand content and provide content to the media—be technology companies first and content companies second? Has some paradigm shifted in the media world?

Now, before you dismiss what I’m saying as just simplistic nonsense, consider that not only is Google an advertising giant, but so is Facebook. So is YouTube. Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and others will rise in ad spend, and they all depend on users for their content. They pay no content creators, but they create extraordinary technology-based environments for people to post their own content.

And if you’re looking for consistency in the argument, consider that most media companies acknowledge freely that the one-way form of communication is dead. The old-school model of, ‘we-create-content-and-you-consume-it” is simply incomprehensible to modern media users. They take cellphone photos and videos, and share them easily. Even media companies say that they want to create a platform for community interaction.

In that context, then, should we be focused on content—or technologies that enable the sharing of content? It’s a fascinating question.

There are those who say that without content, there’s nothing. No Google and no Facebook. Which is true. But that doesn’t really address the question of who’s doing the creating.

—Tony Silber
@tonysilber

The 10 Tough Questions to Ask Yourself Now

“Anything bothering you?”

That was the question posed by my physician during a recent annual check-up. As he peered at my chart which was looking pretty boring in a good way, I wondered whether I should share something small, like “I get headaches every now and then.” Or should I tell him I’m feeling great, so I can take off the paper robe, get dressed and carry on with my day?

“I’m feeling great,” I declared. And that was my annual exam.

If only our personal career check-ups went so easily. I’m not referring to an annual review but to the regular self-assessment of how we’re feeling about what we’re doing every day.

With winter approaching and conference season in full force, there’s no time like the present to conduct an annual self-exam. Many of us have attended conferences at which we hear lots of great ideas, brush up on skills and meet new people. At the same time, we’re trolling social media and fear we’re missing out on other meetings, parties and opportunities. Instead of feeling empowered, the learning, networking and hyper-interactions can make some people feel bad about themselves.  (These are the people not doing the regular self-exams, by the way.) I was at a conference a week ago where I saw an attendee eating a brown bag lunch in the ladies restroom. Aside from the sanitary aspects of such a decision, I wondered if she was pushing herself too hard. She clearly needed to put on the metaphorical paper robe and conduct a self-exam, asking:

In the case of the woman-with-the-brown-bag-lunch and for those who are workaholics, another question might be: Do I eat alone (at my desk) more than twice a week?

These are just suggested questions and some can be painful to answer. But necessary. It goes without saying — but I’ll say it anyway — if you answered “No” to most of the questions above then it’s time to make a change in mindset, action or venue.

- Diane Schwartz

Take off your paper robe and join me on Twitter @dianeschwartz

9 Tips for Public Speakers Who Hate Public Speaking

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

@dianeschwartz

Why is There a “Free Fall” in Media Advertising, and What Does it Mean for PR?

Last week, I read a well-done blog from a writer and social-media consultant named Paul Gillin lamenting the death of BtoB Magazine, which Crain Communications said it is folding into Ad Age as of the first of next year.

What especially caught my eye was this observation:

“The advertising market for business publications is in free fall, and since most of the magazine’s advertisers are themselves B2B media companies, BtoB has suffered along with everybody else.”

Being a student of the media industry, and a content specialist on PR News, I wanted to know why. On the PR side in particular, I would argue that a decline in advertising—in media covering media certainly, but in a lot of print media as well—portends serious challenges for the PR profession.

Consider that as newspapers decline, and advertising in traditional print brands shrinks, the space available for news will also decline. That, of course, means the space available for you to tell your stories via journalists shrinks as well. That’s a dilemma worth preparing for. And I’d argue that media relations is the most important function in PR.

Consider too that as traditional print media declines fewer journalists will be called to the industry, and those who are might well be less capable. Again, a challenge for PR pros who need to rely on reporters who know their beats and get things right.

What’s more, as traditional print brands decline, their influence declines with them, meaning that you, as PR pros, need to find the new kinds of influencers. That’s not always obvious, and it means you’re going to have to balance the old with the new for a long time into the future.

So why is all this happening? I have a few theories, and I like to test them out on other smart people. Sometimes they agree, and other times I suspect they think I’m way wrong.

So I wrote a comment to Gillin’s blog that asked him what he thinks is driving that free fall. Specifically, I asked:

• Is it that print advertising has become an inefficient way to deliver brand messages?

• Is it because software products have emerged in the media industry that render third-party suppliers—advertisers—less essential? In other words, is it a case of, ‘we can build, so we don’t need to buy?’

• And also, do we buy less? For example, online, we don’t need a printer in a continuous relationship, we need a Web development firm just once every few years.

• Is advertising in free fall too because new channels and technologies have emerged—such as Facebook, Google and database-management tools—that allow marketers to more effectively identify and communicate with prospects?

• And if that’s the case, does that mean that the audiences that media companies have traditionally aggregated are less valuable and less compelling to marketers?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. I don’t even know if they’re the right questions to ask. But something is driving the decline in advertising, not just in media on media, not just in b-to-b media, but in many print publications. My friend Jim Elliott says that advertising will come roaring back. It always has in the past. We shall see. What’s new is the volume of alternative media now available, and the ways in which people consume media.

—Tony Silber
@tonysilber

Yucky Comments Can Sometimes Be a Beautiful Thing

PR execs are not supposed to parrot the boss. At least on paper.

Despite the tremendous changes throughout the PR field, one thing remains a constant: The ability of PR managers to take an alternative (if not contrarian) view of the party line and say to the top brass, “That may not be the best idea.”

For C-level execs who understand the role of PR, getting a difference of opinion from PR reps about, say, a potential marketing strategy or crisis management plan can’t be underestimated. It prevents execs from operating in a parallel universe in which everything those execs say or do is considered gold, and the rest of his or her staff nod in agreement. Too many top executives live in splendid intellectual isolation.

The best types of comments posted on companies’ websites, social channels and other media vehicles are those that take the brand to task and offer legitimate criticism.

That’s why Google’s recently announced move to change how YouTube uploaders manage comments on their videos may not do PR pros any favors.

The new system, which last week began rolling out to a limited number of uploaders, “favors relevancy over recency and introduces enhanced moderation tools,” according to Cnet.

The moderation tools for uploaders and channel owners include the ability to review comments before they’re posted, blacklisting certain words and whitelisting specific commenters so their posts will always be approved, Cnet said.

For brands looking for some unvarnished truths about their products and services the new moderation tools could be akin to cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Doesn’t social media foster enough conformity? Do we really need to inspire more? When I was in college a journalism professor told me that compliments are like kryptonite; they make you weak and prevent you from improving your writing or interviewing skills.

Same deal for PR folks. To get a better a sense of whether their campaigns (or YouTube videos) are resonating with the target audience they need to embrace all opinions, not least any vituperative comments that at the same time make valid points.

The vote here is to check out Google’s new moderation tools regarding YouTube, but be selective with them lest you end up whitewashing every last comment.

Sure, some comments posted online have all the charm of a dock strike. Sometimes I feel like taking a shower after reading the nastiest of them.

But cutting off communication, however unsettling, won’t do any good. It’ll just get you comments saying how wonderful your brand is. And how boring is that?

PR people are in the business of embracing communication, no matter how crude, not shutting it out.

Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1

 

 

What Content Marketing Means to PR and Traditional Media (and Traditional Journalists, Too)

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.

—Tony Silber
@tonysilber

9 Tips To Master Before Your Next Media Interview

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Research the reporter before the interview: who is she, what does she cover, what were her last 3 stories?
  4. 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).
  5. Assume you’ll be asked difficult questions: be prepared to answer them.
  6. 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.
  7. Always answer the question: Better to say “I will look into that” than “no comment”.
  8. Have a bridging strategy: at times, you’ll need to bridge the conversation to get to your point. Practice bridging.
  9. 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

Privacy is an Anachronism in PR and Elsewhere: Act Accordingly

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.

Big mistake.

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

Look Up. It Can Be Addictive.

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

@dianeschwartz

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