Late last week, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s foundation, LeanIn.org, got some negative media coverage. An editor from the organization posted a call on her Facebook page for unpaid interns.
The criticism was immediate and furious. How could a non-profit dedicated to empowering women, and fighting the glass ceiling, engage in what many people say are exploitative personnel practices? How could an organization headed by one of the most famous woman executives in the country—a woman who is extraordinarily wealthy and wrote a bestseller on why women’s progress in achieving leadership roles has stalled—expect the most junior and vulnerable people on her team to work for free?
The response was swift as well. Here’s a shortened version of what LeanIn.org president Rachel Thomas wrote on Friday:
“Like many nonprofits, LeanIn.Org has attracted volunteers who are passionate about our mission. We’ve had four students ask to volunteer with us. These volunteers helped support our message and community, and gained valuable experience doing so. They did not displace or delay the hiring of paid employees. As a startup, we haven’t had a formal internship program. Moving forward we plan to, and it will be paid. We support equality – and that includes fair pay – and we’ll continue to push for change in our own organization and our broader community.”
From my perspective, the statement is too defensive, and it mostly doesn’t address the central issue.
It seems to be saying, “Hey, people are coming to us asking to volunteer. Why should we have turned them away?” It seems to be saying, “Even those who work for us for free still get value, so it’s kind of okay.”
Those things might be true, but they’re also, frankly, not productive. That’s especially so for an organization dedicated to principles that are fundamentally at odds with those practices.
From a communications perspective, the defensiveness left a lingering feeling that LeanIn.org still doesn’t quite get it, even through they’re changing their practices.
But the good news, and LeanIn’s real promise, is in Thomas’ last couple of sentences, indicating a change in policy that will require paid internships.
So having perhaps learned a lesson, an organization dedicated to empowering women can now start a much more widespread conversation about changing something that’s much more pervasive than it used to be: Unpaid internships, and paid internships with no benefits replacing what used to be entry-level jobs.
I was at a PR News Conference a couple of weeks ago, and during a Q&A with a panel critiquing press inquiries, the question came up of when and how to follow-up with a non-responsive reporter.
I was the moderator of the panel, and I counseled persistence. I’ve found in my career as a journalist that it’s best to try and produce a response. It’s a fine line. If you’re too pushy, you increase the likelihood that you’ll get a response but diminish the chance that it will be a positive one.
If you’re too passive, you stand little or no chance of getting what you want, which is engagement—in the form of a response and accessibility if you’re a reporter, and engagement and a story if you’re in PR.
So the trick is to give the person with whom you’re corresponding time to consider your pitch, and friendly and professional reminders. This timeframe is dependent on the objective. If you need an answer on deadline, you have to follow-up immediately, even a few times in a single day. If you’re working on a longer-term project, every few days is better.
So at the event, I suggested that approach to the panel—get your source to respond. But one of the panelists, a reporter for USA Today, said that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t work. He said he gets dozens of pitches every day, and that he selects 20 or more at a time and deletes them in bulk. Even persistent PR outreach can’t overcome that.
He has a point, for sure. But my approach will produce a second look and a second chance, provided you’re doing a few things right. And if you are, you avoid getting your release “Snapchatted”—that is, deleted and gone forever within a few minutes of hitting an inbox. Here are some things to keep in mind.
• Think like a reporter. So we know that reporters are very busy, and need to make instant decisions about what to publish today, and what deserves to be worked on as a longer-term piece. So your release—from the subject line, to your brief written intro, to the text itself, must solve those two things for the reporter: Is it immediate news that needs to be published today? Or is it worthy of inclusion in a thought-leadership item, a trend piece?
• Think like a reporter circa 2013. This is really important. There are many more news outlets, and many of them are non traditional, so you have lots more opportunities to get something out into the news stream. But most traditional-media reporters are in organizations whose teams have been dramatically reduced. They’re much more harried. They’re in some cases less knowledgeable about the beats they cover. Your job is to solve their problems.
• Address their challenge, not your brand’s news. This is in some ways obvious, but in others, counter-intuitive. The point is, your news isn’t what a reporter is going to respond to, unless it’s a really major development. If your reporter covers tech, for example, and her specialty is the tech economy, then your press release about a personnel move needs to be framed in a way that makes it clear to the reporter that there’s a connection to the broader tech economy. You’d be surprised how often you can legitimately make a connection like that.
• Know your subject, but don’t patronize. Reporters can be cynical. They don’t like compliments that come off as fake. However, if you’re following the coverage your target reporter does, then you see all kinds of useful things—the types of stories, the points of emphasis that crop up repeatedly, the sources she uses, even favorite words and phrases. Play to those things—but do it implicitly, so the reporter senses his or her objectives are being met.
• If you’ve followed up several times, through e-mail and voicemail, do a quick reminder along the lines of, “Hey Jane—I know you’re really busy. Just wanted to check in on my release. It’s relevant to your audience because of X, Y, and Z. I hope you use it. I’m standing by to be of assistance. But let me know either way. If it’s a “no,” that’s okay, maybe next time.”
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
One of the bigger viral stories of the last two days was the foul-mouthed racist rant by a Dunkin’ Donuts customer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who filmed herself abusing the store’s employees and posted the video online.
The coffee-shop chain has a policy that states that if employees neglect to provide an accurate receipt, then the customer gets their order for free.
In the video, the customer, Taylor Chapman, had made a drive-through order the prior evening and didn’t get a receipt, and she showed up the next morning loaded for bear, claiming that because she and her friends didn’t get a receipt the night before, she should get the same order that next day. Her bizarre eight-minute video got worse and then worse still, but all the while, the DD employee, 18-year-old Abid Adar, calmly and politely handled the abuse, offering to make good on the policy and provide a free order for Chapman.
Put aside for the moment that the rant was so over-the-top crazy, and that the video was first posted by an anonymous YouTube account with no prior videos, that it made the entire incident seem somehow “off.”
Consider instead how Adar was an exemplary brand ambassador, and that it took Dunkin’ Donuts a full three days after the incident to acknowledge Adar’s poise and make some form of recognition.
@caseyhall_ We’re proud of how our franchisee’s crew member handled this situation! ^LH
— Dunkin’ Donuts (@DunkinDonuts) June 13, 2013
There are significant communications ramifications here. In no particular order, here are some that occur to me:
• Other than some Twitter responses, I’ve found no official Dunkin’ Donuts statement on the incident, hoax or otherwise. Big mistake.
• If nothing else, use a personal statement by an executive, in a press release and not just a tweet, to acknowledge that your employee, a bottom-of-the-totem-pole teenager, responded with exceptional restraint and professionalism.
• Better yet, take his story to the media and make him an example to all of your employees coast to coast.
• Remember that your people are your best brand ambassadors. Adar and a second employee, who was singled out for especially ugly invective late in the video, were either well trained or were special representatives of Dunkin’ Donuts. Sometimes the most valuable PR can come from the most unheralded and unexpected sources. Internalize that. Make it policy. Make it proactive. That way, every employee will know in advance how to deal with abusive customers.
• Rethink the policy about the receipts. It’s dumb. Most times I don’t need a receipt for my coffee, and when I do, if I don’t get it, I don’t expect a free order.
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
In ‘Iron Man 3,’ there’s a scene featuring a reporter shoving his iphone in Tony Stark’s face asking him to make a public statement to his enemies. Stark stares into the iphone, makes his superhero threat, then throws the reporter’s phone into oblivion. The press just can’t catch a break these days. Like many CEOs, Stark could use some media training.
In the spirit of heralding the start of summer blockbusters and because this blog can’t really be a movie review, I give you seven practical communications lessons from ‘Iron Man 3′:
- Keep your sense of humor. If Tony Stark can get kicked, smashed and thrown out of airplanes and still have a sense of humor about it, surely you can handle a disappointment at the office.
- In a press conference, do not give out the home address of your CEO. Repeat, keep executives’ home addresses confidential.
- Look for answers in less obvious places. Clue are everywhere – check the shadows, look around you, ask questions. You’ll eventually find what you’re looking for.
- It’s hard to get close to someone if you’re wearing armor. Shed the pretenses, be yourself.
- Don’t discount the people you meet at parties, on elevators and places in between: they may come back to haunt you, or help you.
- Stay until the end: anyone who has watched a Marvel superhero movie knows to be on the lookout for the Stan Lee cameo and to stay until after the credits, when there’s a short reel featuring another Marvel superhero and a forthcoming movie. It’s the treat you get for surviving all the credits. (By the way, check out the incredible overhead on this movie.)
- Test your piece of work in other markets: Even before hitting U.S. theaters a few days ago, ‘Iron Man’ bagged more than $500 million at the box office overseas. Success begets more success. If you know you’ll get a great reception from other audiences, start there to increase buzz and confirm the epic quality of your work.
- Kids are cute and lighten the mood when you’re trying to beat the competition. Feature them in your next campaign.
- Diane Schwartz
Oscar Wilde once said that the “question often arrives a terribly long time after the answer.” For sure, asking the right questions early and often is the answer to a lot of problems we face as communicators. Inundated with projects, challenges, crises, pitches and meetings, we are easily seduced by the sirens of Completion: get it done, no tough questions asked. Throughout your week, you are inherently set up to ask tough questions. How often do you ask the right ones, however difficult the answers might be?
Below, I’ve started a list of key topics and questions to ask in your PR life. Please add to it – what do you have to lose?
* A PR Campaign: Can it be measured and what will the key performance indicators be?
* Interviewing your Next PR Star: What’s your best mistake and why?
* Choosing a PR Firm: Whom will I be working with day to day and what’s his/her experience?
* Choosing a Client: Are their expectations realistic and will we click on a human level?
* Forging a Nonprofit/Charitable Partnership: Does this organization align with my company’s goals and do we have time for this?
* Your Team: Whom can I recognize today for a job a well done?
* Your Customers: How can I “wow” them this week?
* Pushing a Viewpoint: Is it really worth pursuing?
* Managing a Crisis: Who is affected by this crisis, and what’s the worst that could happen?
* Social Media: Do we really need to be on this platform? If yes, why? If not, let’s not waste precious time.
* The Media: What great story do I have to tell and why should they care?
I look forward to your contributions to this list!
- Diane Schwartz
Major League Baseball’s Spring Training is in full swing. It’s the start of a new baseball season, when ballplayers focus on getting in shape and every team, regardless of its payroll, has visions of playing in the World Series eight months from now.
Watching some of the coverage of spring training on ESPN it’s not too much of a stretch to think that—considering the constant newness in marketing communications—PR pros are forever in spring training, awaiting the next pitch, er, digital channel, technology or social network that they need to game.
With that in mind, here are a few PR lessons to gauge from MLB’s spring training:
> Singular focus: With myriad new media platforms being batted around, not to mention the race for social-media supremacy, it’s easy for PR pros to get wrapped up in what the competition is doing. Sure, rivalries abound in any market but, as with spring training, the overriding goal for PR departments and agencies is to put the together the best possible team. Communications execs need to assemble a squad with players who complement one another; are leery of injuring the brand and know how to pace themselves for what truly is a never-ending season.
> Strength and conditioning: In an increasingly social-media world, PR departments need to make sure that their social channels stay loose and flexible, but don’t suffer from any flab, or extraneous and/or unnecessary information that can drive eyeballs away from the channel as fast as screaming base hit down the third-base line.
> Deploying utility players: You see it all the time in baseball: A player is called in to pinch-hit or pinch-run or the outfield is reconfigured to adjust to a power hitter. In a similar vein PR departments now must have their eyes peeled for specialized talent—videographers, analytics gurus, Web designers or media buyers—to bring into the fold and improve the overall prospects for the team.
What do you think? Are the other analogies between PR and baseball that I’m missing?
— Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjouro1