(I say ‘wait for it’ because anyone who knows BuzzFeed’s editorial approach knows its love for lists.)
It was a sponsored story—paid advertising—posted on behalf of Hostess, whose Twinkies and other brands are back after the production ceased and the company downsized nearly out of existence last year.
But the comebacks listed in the BuzzFeed story never once mentioned Hostess. It was all about other stuff.
It was actually a pretty good list, and pretty funny, too, despite small errors and its ‘intern-pulled-the-factoids-off-Wikipedia’ feel. So were the comments, not all of which were complimentary. “Uh, Arrested Development was canceled in Feb 2006, and the new season, specifically for Netflix, had 15 episodes. It really isn’t hard to check up on simple facts before submitting an ‘article,’” went one.
That’s an awesome description, for native or traditional forms. But with native, there are new ways to create superior value for an advertiser (and reader/user) and also new ways to mess things up.
Check out QZ.com for a clean, elegant way to do in-stream native advertising. Consider that the advertising is in the form of storytelling. Not a marketing pitch. Think too about the value provided to an advertiser to be fully integrated into a site’s content stream—where you see the ad as you scroll, and the ad’s content comes up in a search. That’s incredible advertising value.
But then there’s the flip side: Done poorly, native advertising in a content stream can seem spammy. It can disrupt the flow of content, not enhance it. It can make your page look like a dissonant cacophony, and put your credibility at risk when people open a page and see yellow-tinted ads where you think they shouldn’t be.
It’s a double-edged sword, and I admit that I’m not sure I like everything BuzzFeed is doing. That might be, though, that their formulaic approach kind of gets old quick. The fun of media consumption, and of PR, is in being surprised, and even delighted, in unexpected ways.
OK, I stole the idea for this headline from Abbie Hoffman, author of “Steal This Book.” But let’s call it an homage instead of outright theft.
My headline was inspired by WFMU radio host Tom Scharpling, who was, in his show last night, making fun of headlines that are naked ploys to get you to click on them, such as “Why I Hate the San Antonio Spurs” or “Top 10 Reasons Why You Should Call Your Doctor Right Now.” Scharpling also admitted to using the same tactics for his own online pieces.
The fact is, if you are a professional communicator, headlines are everything. Until the time comes when text finally fades away and we transmit ideas solely with still and video images, you’ll need to study the past masters at the New York Post and the current masters at BuzzFeed and learn the craft of writing clickable headlines. Your job as a headline writer is to bypass cognitive thought and create an instant cause and effect between the reader’s eyes and clicking finger.
Think beyond the literal headlines on press releases and blog posts. A tweet is a headline; so is a Facebook post. A subject line in an email is a headline. A meta description for a Web page that shows up in Google searches is a headline. A text message is most definitely a headline. And each of these headlines is battling millions upon millions of other headlines to win the almighty clicks.
The headline is the gateway to all digital communications, and if you can’t write headlines that force people to click—almost against their will—then you’re not really communicating.
- Steve Goldstein
There are countless communications takeaways from the recent celebrity gaffes. Whether it’s Paula Deen dealing with allegations of being a racist and then dropped like a buttered sweet potato by every brand partner, or Jennifer Lopez singing “Happy Birthday” to Turkmenistan’s authoritarian ruler for his 56th birthday last Saturday night, one thing is for sure: another day, another blunder by a celebrity or public figure.
Is the PR team to blame for either of these crises — or is it to be sympathized with? After all, wrangling bosses with high stature and over-sized egos to do and say what you advise is not kid’s play. You win some, you lose some. In the Paula Deen and J.Lo cases, I take the side that PR could have done a better job of doing their job. Public Relations is not just about pitching stories to the media (which is what most of the public thinks) – it’s about improving or maintaining reputations, shaping messages, avoiding crises, moving a brand forward, managing expectations, and so much more.
PR could have shined in both these crises – resulting in another needed feather in the PR cap. (Notably, there are hundreds of crises every day that never see the light of media because PR is in fact doing its job.)
Because too much has already been written and said about Paula Deen, I will keep this one simple: PR counselors can’t make their clients less racist, but a strategic and strong PR counsel can guide their client to take the right steps to mitigate crisis, to apologize, to articulate how he or she will make amends. Instead, we hear Deen utter: “I is what I is” and we hear her challenging people to throw stones at her head if they weren’t guilty as well of saying mean things. Even before getting into crisis management mode, shouldn’t Deen’s PR team have seen this coming? Did they have a seat at any of Deen’s many tables, guiding her on public perception, listening to what her employees were saying and feeling? It was a public secret that Deen used the “N-word” often.
From Savannah to the Central Asian country of Turkmenistan we have another situation that will predictably be less of a long-term problem for the celebrity. J.Lo was the guest of a China National Petroleum Corp. event in Turkmenistan when she was asked to sing “Happy Birthday” to that country’s leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. J.Lo’s spokesman, Mark Young, told the New York Post: “Had there been knowledge of human-rights issues of any kind, Jennifer would not have attended” the birthday party. Um, Google or Bing “Turkmenistan” and you’ll find that Human Rights Watch lists it “among the most repressive” countries in the world. As my PR News colleague Lucia Davis writes on prnewsonline, this crisis, too, could have been avoided.
The whole situation was made worse by J.Lo’s team members’ enthusiasm for being at this event, with her choreographer cluelessly tweeting: “The Turkmenistan breeze feels amazing at night, kidz! I wonder where all my Turkmenistan followers are!? Hit me up!” Perhaps the people of this land can’t follow him on Tweeter because, according to Human Rights Watch, “The Turkmen government exercises total control of public life.”
In my 18 years in the PR space, one of the most basic pieces of advice volleyed between media and PR people has been to “do your homework.” PR people shouldn’t pitch stories to reporters without knowing what and whom they cover. And reporters should respect PR’s role in the ecosystem, whether it’s a political, entertainment, business or nonprofit story, and should come into the interview knowing a thing or two about their subject. Had J.Lo’s team done its homework, it would have easily discovered that even showing up for an event honoring a repressive world leader is ill-advised. Singing “Happy Birthday” was just icing on the stinking cake. Had Paula Deen’s PR team done a listening tour of the people closest to her empire – such as her employees – they could have put measures in place to avoid the downward spiral.
Summer’s here, school is out, but we will always have our homework to do.
- Diane Schwartz
In abruptly firing Men’s Wearhouse founder and executive chairman George Zimmer, the men’s clothing company has sent a few messages to the marketplace, none of which are likely to help the brand’s reputation or its PR efforts.
Men’s Wearhouse gave no explanation for firing Zimmer, who built the company from one small Texas store to “one of North America’s largest specialty men’s clothiers with 1,143 locations,” according to The Huffington Post, adding that the company generated revenue of $2.48 billion in its latest fiscal year ended Feb. 2.
To add insult to injury, the firing came on the heels of the company’s announcement last week that profits were up 23%.
Perhaps Zimmer—the face of the brand who assures consumers in television commercials that “You’re going to like the way you look”—is being punished for helping to generate solid numbers for the brand. That’s puzzling enough. Yet it wouldn’t be the first time that a company’s founder was ousted by the board of directors, the late Steve Jobs being the most prominent example.
What’s even more bewildering is the Zimmer handed over the CEO reins to his successor, Douglas Ewart, in 2011.
Zimmer, for one, has not been shy about airing his grievances. “Over the past several months I have expressed my concerns to the board about the direction the company is currently heading,” Zimmer told CNBC. “Instead of fostering the kind of dialogue in the boardroom that has in part contributed to our success, the Board has inappropriately chosen to silence my concerns through termination as an executive officer.”
Men’s Wearhouse has responded to Zimmer’s comments with radio silence. That’s the company’s prerogative, of course, never mind that it betrays an incredibly dim view of public relations.
“The move goes against everything you learned about corporate communications,” said David Johnson, CEO of PR agency Strategic Vision LLC. The decision “creates uncertainty among existing customers about where the brand is going.”
Some reports pegged the move to Men’s Wearhouse wanting to re-tailor the brand for the millennials (people born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s).
If so, Men’s Wearhouse has a peculiar way of communicating to millennials, who seem to value transparency, openness and dialogue—everything Men’s Wearhouse avoided when it decided to dump Zimmer.
Indeed, they don’t call it “social media” for nothing. Other reports suggested that Zimmer’s support for legalizing marijuana may have gotten him in trouble.
Whatever the case, Men’s Wearhouse comes off as a company that’s stuck in time.
If the company had serious differences with Zimmer it should have had the gumption to tell consumers via its social channels why the man synonymous with the brand was being summarily let go and where the company goes from here.
Initial returns on Men’s Wearhouse secrecy strategy are less than encouraging. Hundreds of Men’s Wearhouse shoppers took to its Facebook page to express their outrage over the firing of Zimmer, per CNNMoney.com. Said one customer: “Oust George and lose my business. I guarantee it.”
Maybe the suits at Men’s Wearhouse need to reconsider their decision to get rid of Zimmer and get more schooling in PR in the process.
(Earlier today, Men’s Wearhouse Board of Directors released a statement explaining why the company fired Zimmer.)
Follow Matthew Schwartz:@mpsjourno1
My son Max tells very long stories that veer in curious directions. By the time he’s nearing the point, he forgets the ending. It’s rather cute and endearing – he is, after all, only 12 years old. He will sometimes exclaim frustratingly: “I forgot what I was going to say!” Can we admit that often it’s as if a 12-year-old is telling a story about his brand? And we aren’t as forgiving, are we?
Storytelling in PR comes in many forms: press releases, emails, memos, phone calls, meetings, press conferences, interviews. Our stakeholders have short attention spans and are less charitable about seeing through the foggy messages. They are not our parents, who will listen to our stories and love us even more for the muddled storytelling. No, stakeholders will send you on your merry way, and latch on to a better story.
Like you and me, our audiences like a story that has heart, that makes us think and moves us in some way. A few days ago, I heard about Pedigree’s partnership with “Annie” on Broadway and the search for a shelter dog to play Sandy. The story is heart-warming and memorable, and makes me want to buy Pedigree dog food and see Annie for the umpteenth time. The story had emotion.
It’s the communicator’s role to find the compelling story in the message and then make it stick. At PR News’ Content Marketing Boot Camp on Tuesday, one speaker noted that “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” That’s a catchy reminder, but even in the age of social media and attention deficits, your story must be authentic, true to your brand’s story line and characters.
The best stories spread, then stick and, most importantly, result in a positive action or reaction. In other words, sticky can sometimes be stinky. Which leads me to my last point: know what to leave out of a story. Every brand and company is filled with stories. Not all of those stories should be told. Curate your stories, identify the narrative and figure out what’s better left unsaid. Not every story is worth repeating. Unless it’s about your kids.
- Diane Schwartz
If you’re an immigrant from Krypton living in the U.S.—or in any spot on Earth—then flying without the benefit of a wingspan or jet propulsion and hearing the flutter of a butterfly in Ensenada while you’re leaping over the Empire State Building in a single bound is old hat. Warner Bros.’ Man of Steel, the new Superman reboot, is no cause for celebration for you either—it’ll just flush out the anti-immigrant wingnuts who’ll once again terrorize you and your relatives with Kryptonite hockey pucks.
You didn’t ask for superpowers—you just needed to find a more hospitable planet. Your superpowers make you feel like a freak and, if you work in PR, cause no end of frustration. Using your superpowers for your own professional ends feels too much like cheating—your old-school Kryptonian parents certainly wouldn’t approve—and so you toil away like just another Clark Kent.
I’m telling you now to embrace your true, Kryptonian self—own your inner Superman or Superwoman, put your powers to use as a PR pro. Let’s face it—part of the reason you deny your superpowers is you’re afraid that they might not be so super after all. And that’s just not logical.
Here are just three suggestions to get you started:
- If your brand is in crisis because of, say, an oil spill or because of a cruise ship that’s run aground, fly around the Earth really fast to reverse its rotation around the axis. This will take you back in time so you can prevent the oil rig from exploding or the cruise ship captain from carousing.
- Make your brand a CSR leader by using your super breath power to re-freeze the melting polar ice cap.
- Use your blinding speed to respond to every tweet that mentions your brand’s name—in real time! And, as a bonus, using this speed you’ll finally be able to clear out all those unopened emails.
By now you’ve heard the news that Adam Levine hates his country. No, he loves his country. Wait a minute: what does he really feel and why do we care? If “The Voice” coach and Maroon Five singer truly hated America, the worst that could happen is he gets kicked off “The Voice” and his band suffers in the Apple store.
For communications professionals, Adam Levine’s gut response, “I hate this country” made after two of his singers got voted off “The Voice” on Tuesday night, is an example of public figures saying something stupid for a split second. That’s all it takes, a split second, for a quote to go viral and escalate to a top story. The public and media know a great sound bite when they hear it, especially surprising when it comes out of the mouths of generally well-liked, behaving celebrities.
What PR advice would you give Adam? Here are some steps Adam has already taken and that he might want to consider over the next 48 hours:
Respond via social media. On his Twitter handle, he tweeted definitions of “humorless,” “joke,” “misunderstand” and “lighthearted.” His fans are on Twitter, so responding to them in a less conspicuous manner was the right move.
Issue a statement. That he did:
“I obviously love my country very much and my comments last night were made purely out of frustration. Being a part of The Voice, I am passionately invested in my team and want to see my artists succeed. Last night’s elimination of Judith and Sarah was confusing and downright emotional for me and my comments were made based on my personal dissatisfaction with the results. I am very connected to my artists and know they have long careers ahead, regardless of their outcome on the show.”
Ride it out. This too shall be passed over by other non-important news. Justin Bieber continues to behave badly, Arrested Development is back and Beyonce might be having another baby.
Be more careful. That microphone works, Adam. Think before you speak into it.
Here are things Adam shouldn’t do in the next 48 hours:
> Wear red, white and blue.
> Get a tattoo of the U.S. flag on his wrist (wait at least a year).
> Write a song about patriotism.
> Become the spokesperson for the Armed Forces.
> Step down from “The Voice.”
And, for the producers of “The Voice,” enjoy the boost in ratings.
- Diane Schwartz
We’ve been doing a lot of writing in PR News lately on great PR writing and as I was reflecting on this very intricate craft—a form of writing that requires immense skill—I thought it might be useful to reflect on what a journalist looks for in PR writing—not just press releases, but also corporate letters, comments from executives, and more. So here goes, more or less in the order of importance:
• First and foremost, tell a story, but remember your story is not automatically interesting to the media and stakeholders. You have to anticipate what your external constituents will view as significant from their perspective. But let’s get back to the concept of story-telling. If there’s a narrative—if there’s a sense of progress, or change, or surprise, or accomplishment, that’s what will get the attention of a reporter. Especially if the story is unexpected, or counter-intuitive, or it defies the conventional wisdom. That’s what reporters look for, because those are the things they want to offer to their readers.
• Don’t force big news out of small news. I got a press release just last week from a media company CEO, who assured me this was “big, big news.” Well, it wasn’t. Loss of credibility because of a breathless effort to turn non news into big news is hard to repair.
• Don’t lead with the “what,” lead with the “why.” It’s harder for a reporter to care that your CEO just gave a speech at the TED Conference, or that your company just won a major industry award, or even that you exceeded earnings expectations for the quarter by 4 percent. It’s much easier to care that the CEO’s presentation was really important because it generated news, or caused a stir, or that your earning would have missed except for some specific act. You get the idea.
• When using quotes, avoid “happy talk.” I’ve read 10,000 quotes that proclaim a CEO is “delighted to have Bob join the team…” Perhaps you thought we were expecting to hear that you’re “kind of bummed out that Bob is joining the team, because we really wanted Jane.” It’s better to simply lay out what Bob or Jane is expected to do, and why the hire matters.
• Avoid hackneyed and hyperbolic words. Nothing makes journalists’ eyes glaze over faster than you touting your ”solutions,” your “global” reach and your “industry-leading” position.
• Don’t bury the lead. Usually, you can tell the gist of your story in half the number of words you used. This mainly comes down to disciplined self editing, but you also have to keep in mind the fact that early drafts of writing almost always take their time getting to the point and usually back into the point.
• Don’t use exclamation points. Don’t use bold-faced words. Don’t use all-caps. You’d be amazed at how well-crafted sentences and solid choice of words actually speak for themselves, without any need to call attention to them.
- Tony Silber
On Twitter: @tonysilber
You’re a busy journalist. You’re on deadline. You’re trying to round up sources and interviews for a story you need to crank out today. One of your most promising sources is not responding, gone off the grid. But you’re still hopeful, especially because she and her company have PR representation.
So you go to the PR agency’s website, looking to email or call someone from the agency and either enlist their help or leverage the connection into a direct call with the source.
But wait: You get to the “Contact Us” page, and you hit a wall. What? Instead of a helpful list of members of the team, with their areas of specialty, their email addresses and their phone numbers, not to mention their Twitter addresses, you hit a cinderblock. You get one of those “Fill-Out-This-Irritating-Web-Form-And-Send-An-Email-To-Some-Anonymous-Address” pages.
You get one of those contact pages on websites that force users to send their media inquiries via email to a faceless, nameless depository and hope that they get a response in a timely manner.
Guess what that journalist is going to do? Correct.
Which leads me to ask: Why do PR firms—communications agencies, after all—use those depersonalizing forms? I know a lot of companies do it, and maybe there’s a good reason, but I say not in PR.
In PR, the whole point is to connect with stakeholders—especially the media—in as expeditious a manner as possible. In PR, with a few exceptions, the chance to tell your story is something to be embraced. So why make it hard? It makes no sense. You’re not doing yourself, or your clients, any favors that’s for sure.
For that matter too, the strategy is debatable even for companies that don’t often get a lot of media inquiries. That’s because, due to the rise of “content marketing,” every company is now a quasi-media company and needs to be able to respond to inquiries—from either media reps or customers—with more speed and more substance.
For PR agencies, the whole objective is to humanize—you. Your firm. Your clients. By having a faceless Contacts page you’re ultimately robbing yourself of the opportunity to get your messages out and cultivate relationships.
Social media is rewriting the rules for PR and dramatically changing how PR reps communicate with the media. Fair enough. But PR departments and agencies that insist on using a faceless, “Media Inquiries” page on their websites, are, when you come to think about it, being downright anti-“social.”
Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1
Has writing become a lost art, a nice-to-have skill but not a necessary one? I sure hope not. For those of us who cherish the written word and are prone to find typos on cereal boxes or wine bottles, we appreciate a well-constructed sentence that concisely conveys a point. Smart communicators know that good writing is essential, not optional.
PR News hosted a Writing Boot Camp at the National Press Club on May 14, and I was pleased to see hundreds of PR professionals of all levels taking time to hone a skill that can be a game-changer for their career. That is, if you’re a terrible writer, how far can you really go at your company? If you can’t consistently communicate a message creatively and succinctly, how likely is it that your stakeholders will look down on your brand and possibly move on?
If you recognize you have writing deficiencies, do something about it now. Don’t wait. It’s all well and fine to be a social media expert or a great account manager. But sooner or later, you will be found out:
“She’s great with the clients in person, but have you seen her emails? They make no sense.”
“We can’t give him that report to write, because we’ll be up all night rewriting it.”
“Did she miss the punctuation class in grade school?”
To avoid such maligning, I’ve compiled seven tips to help you become a better writer:
Read at least 3 articles a day: Whether online or in print, read about current events and take note of how the writer is articulating a point, how quotes are being used, how the article begins and ends.
Resist the urge to abbreviate: In a short-messaging world, we think what works in a text or tweet is OK in an email, a memo or a press release. It’s not. Spell out words. Make your sixth grade English teacher proud.
Say it out loud: after you’ve written a business piece, read it out loud. Does it make sense? Can it be improved? Is it so long that you tire of hearing your own voice?
Avoid jargon: At the Writing Boot Camp, trainers implored the audience to avoid hyperbole and be real about how “innovative” your company is or whether “best” and “great” are really the right words to make your stakeholders believe in your product. For more tips on avoiding jargon, check out my Boot Camp coverage.
Know your channel: It’s been said that Twitter is the office and Facebook is the dinner table: your messages should reflect the channel you’re writing for. Where it gets sticky is with email communication. Know these things about email: your email can be forwarded, especially if it’s irresistibly incomprehensible; don’t use emoticons in emails to people you’re not close with, and (drumroll…) you can use spell check with your emails.
Break the right rules: let’s face it, the AP Stylebook is a guide not a rule. You can break rules in writing in the interest of creativity and keeping people awake. Every now and then start a sentence with the word “And” or remove a verb from the sentence, for effect.
Think in headlines: As you begin to write a piece, ask yourself what the headline would be. Likely you’ll change that headline several times. If you can’t come up with a headline, then you are unclear about the message you’re conveying. Every story has a headline.
Any other tips you’d like to add? If so, please chime in. And don’t abbreviate.
- Diane Schwartz
On Twitter: @dianeschwartz