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
I am among the unlucky who didn’t watch ‘Breaking Bad’ over the years and missed out on the binge-watching and chatter over Sunday’s finale. We must all make choices in our TV viewing and apparently I made a bad choice and there’s no going back to viewing all the seasons since I now know (spoiler alert!) that Walt dies in the finale.
The good news for PR peeps is you can break out of bad PR habits and live to tell your story. I am pretty sure most of you can’t personally relate to the list below, but in the interest of elevating the PR profession, here are some ideas for breaking bad PR:
1. Don’t email or call journalists you aren’t familiar with. Research their beats, recent articles they’ve written and their media outlet for relevance.
2. When being interviewed by the media, do not say “no comment.” Worse yet, don’t utter those words while chewing gum (really).
3. Your company is not “leading” and does not have the “number-one solution” – remove these and words like them from your press releases and web site.
4. Don’t do anything in PR that you can’t measure.
5. Don’t ask or ponder what the Barcelona Principles are (look them up, memorize them).
6. If your company is green or sustainable, make sure you can prove it.
7. The number of Twitter followers or Facebook likes for your brand is not commensurate with how wonderful your company is.
8. In a crisis, don’t think an apology is a sign of weakness.
9. Don’t hire bad writers.
10. Turn down clients that aren’t a good match for your firm. Likewise, for clients, don’t be afraid to break up with your agency if the relationship’s not working.
11. Don’t ever let someone call you a flack. PR deserves better.
I look forward to seeing your tips for breaking bad PR.
What is it about CEOs? How can so many of them be so smart and so accomplished, and yet still say so many bad or dumb things?
It’s enough to keep a communications team up at night—and if they get to sleep, they have anxiety-driven nightmares.
Just this week, Guido Barilla, the CEO of one of the leading pasta makers in the world, brought a boycott down on his company for remarks that were viewed as homophobic. Within a few hours of the news, according to the guardian.com, the hashtag “boicotta-barilla” was trending on Twitter.
“For us, the concept of the sacred family remains one of the basic values of the company,” Barilla said in a radio interview when asked whether he’d use gay people in advertising. “I would not do it, but not out of a lack of respect for homosexuals who have the right to do what they want without bothering others. I don’t see things like they do and I think the family that we speak to is a classic family.”
This all comes just months after Chick-Fil-A CEO Dan Cathy renewed an old controversy he created in 2012 by tweeting his dissatisfaction with the Supreme Court decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.
Also this year, Abercrombie and Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries brought negative attention on himself and his company when older comments surfaced where he said he only wants good looking people to buy his clothes.
And American Apparel CEO Dov Charney seems to be just minutes away at any given time from another lawsuit.
I think CEOs are smart, for sure—but they’re also human. And once people get to the top of their profession, they’re a) accustomed to thinking they’re always right, and b) used to subordinates telling them they’re always right. That leads very quickly to hubris and arrogance for most people, excepting only those who are really disciplined and have a very solid sense of self.
What’s a communicator to do? Here are a few options:
• Engage the executives in your company in media training. Not in sporadic episodes, but sustained programs. Don’t do it yourself. Bring in experts.
• Challenge the boss. Oftentimes, you’ll be putting your job at risk, but heck, it can’t be good for you or your company if you merely go along and get along.
• Know your executives. Know what their personal perspectives are. Respect those views, but help them understand that those views and the company’s marketing messaging are two different things.
• Offer yourself as a sounding board to flippant top executives—have them bounce their public statements off you first. And if they reject that idea, then it might be time to think about your own reputation and find an environment that is more receptive to good PR counsel.
I was quoted in the newspaper the other day. The quote was technically inaccurate—I didn’t say what the reporter wrote that I said. But it was correct in the substance. In effect, the reporter understood my meaning, and got it right, but wasn’t writing down or transcribing my words verbatim. The quote was an approximation, rebuilt by the writer.
Was it okay? All’s well that ends well? No, not really. It can’t be. My view from years of work in journalism is that if you use a direct quote, it has to be what the person said. As a reporter and editor, I’ve cleaned up quotes, and taken out repeated words, and eliminated sentence fragments that come up when people speak extemporaneously and change their direction as they go. I’ve even clarified quotes, inserting nouns when the speaker used pronouns.
But that’s different from “reconstructing” a quote because you didn’t write it down—or you weren’t listening carefully.
Which leads me to my point. In journalism or PR—indeed all communications—listening is a technique. In PR, it could be about understanding the context and underlying objective of a campaign, not just what the client’s RFP said, or what the CEO indicated at the Monday meeting. It is something close to intuition, even if that can be tricky. There is a skill to training your ear to listen, even as you’re taking notes.
The process is fascinating, really. I remember early on, when I’d have one of those old-style reporter’s notebooks, furiously scribbling, standing up, as the mayor (or whomever) rattled off a comment. I got so good at it that I could listen, and engage critically, responding to what was said, and not just merely transcribing. And at the same time, I could sense in real time when a quote was good enough to take it down verbatim.
And that’s the crux. As a communications professional, great engagement and great results can only come from truly listening—call it critical listening—and being able to separate the fluff from the substance. On the fly.
An example: Just last week, I attended a conference, but spent more time than I should have tending to matters back at the office. When it came time to write a cohesive report on the event, I kind of surprised myself, because all the while I had been doing critical listening. I was tuned to the speakers and the comments that mattered the most. The report wasn’t half bad.
I picked up a sound piece of advice the other night, during a college admissions event my daughter and I attended. Among the questions the prospective students asked of the alumni panel was whether the class sizes are so big that you can’t see, hear and learn in them. The very articulate Class of 2010 alumnus responded with a great piece of advice that was applicable to me — and you, I imagine. She said: “Just sit in the front of the room.” (Ah, if only it were that easy. Especially in college, when you really aren’t sure if you’ll be staying for the whole class, and what about your friends who wouldn’t dare sit in the front row?)
The high school senior who asked the question nodded affirmatively, but you could see that the sound advice flowed right over her head. I believe she was hoping for a literal answer, such as “Yes, it sucks, but you deal with it.”
The takeaway for me was an affirmation that just changing where you sit changes your perspective, improves your visibility, eliminates distractions, and gets you noticed. To take the advice further, instead of sitting in the back of the room (or being anonymous in your organization, or among your customers), move yourself to get closer, to be seen, and to hear things more clearly. By sitting (or getting closer), you’ll pick up on details that could make a big difference in your viewpoint. Our marketplaces are bigger than any college classroom; if you’re in the way, way back then you’re missing out on the conversation.
I didn’t expect to learn much from this college event – it was really for my daughter, not me. Which shows you can learn some life lessons from unexpected places and times. Just sit closer, and listen.
PR Industry Missed an Opportunity During the Putin/Ketchum Op-Ed Episode to Talk About the Role of PR
Last week’s episode in which Ketchum helped place an op-ed piece by Russian President Vladimir Putin in The New York Times has shined a less-than-flattering spotlight on the PR profession.
In the Putin article, titled, “A Plea For Caution From Russia,” Putin seeks a solution to the violence in Syria. “Recent events have prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders,” Putin writes, adding that a U.S. strike against Syria “would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.”
Ketchum’s role in placing the op-ed was first reported by BuzzFeed.
According to Justice Department filings, Ketchum was reportedly paid $1.9 million by the Russian government during the first six months of this year. It got another $3.7 million for public relations work for Gazprom, the oil and gas company controlled by the Kremlin.
“The opinion piece was written by President Putin and submitted to The New York Times on his behalf by Ketchum for their consideration,” said Jackie Burton, Ketchum’s senior VP of external relations, in a statement.
She added, “Ketchum’s work with the Russian Federation began in 2006 during Russia’s Presidency of the G8 Summit that took place in St. Petersburg. Our role has continued, with a focus on facilitating the relationship between representatives of The Russian Federation and the western media.”
She would not comment any further on the op-ed piece in the Times.
However, I’m curious about the reaction to the letter within the PR industry, or, more precisely, the lack thereof.
Sure, I can easily picture communications professionals debating Ketchum’s role in placing Putin piece, and comments would likely range from whether Ketchum has set the PR industry back to defending the agency. What, exactly, does Ketchum have to apologize for?
But that’s inside baseball. What about the consumers who have been following the story? What was their takeaway from Ketchum acting on behalf of Putin? There are well-established perceptions about the moral ambiguities of PR. This underscores that perception—PR people serve as mouthpieces for anyone and they do it for a price.
The industry could have taken the window afforded by the Putin article to explain why Ketchum’s work on behalf of Russia is fair game in PR and address why some people may have a problem with it.
However, a spokeswoman for the Pubic Relations Society of America (PRSA) told PR News that the PRSA would have no comment on Ketchum’s action and is “neutral” on the subject.
That’s unfortunate, particularly in light of the negative impression many people already harbor about public relations.
The PRSA could have sent out a media advisory to broadcasters, media companies and publishers offering the industry’s perspective on the Ketchum episode. It also could have provided some context about PR compared with other marketing disciplines, such as advertising.
That opportunity is now lost. The chance to explain to the world why PR does what it does is lost. The chance to talk about what PR is and how it’s changing and work to correct inaccurate stereotypes about the PR field is gone.
Responding to the episode could have changed the narrative about PR, however slightly. But now the song will remain the same. Until the next dustup, that is.
Follow Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Research the reporter before the interview: who is she, what does she cover, what were her last 3 stories?
- 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).
- Assume you’ll be asked difficult questions: be prepared to answer them.
- 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.
- Always answer the question: Better to say “I will look into that” than “no comment”.
- Have a bridging strategy: at times, you’ll need to bridge the conversation to get to your point. Practice bridging.
- 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
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.
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
Last week, Buzzfeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti published a long memo on LinkedIn. It was titled a memo to the staff, but really was only partly directed to the staff. It was also a PR message to all stakeholders as well as competitors.
At any rate, it was brilliant. It was the most clear-headed, fully thought-out description of where media are going, and what attributes are necessary for success in a completely transformed media era. For those reasons—because it serves as both a great example of executive communication and helps PR pros understand where media is going—it’s worth discussing.
First thing Peretti did was thank his team in what seemed heartfelt and was certainly gracious:
“Before anything I want to thank you for all your amazingly great work over the last year. All of our success is because of you. BuzzFeed is on a significant roll, we have reached new milestones and our future looks tremendously bright.”
And that’s just the start. Peretti cited statistics illuminating BuzzFeed’s staggering Web growth. He outlined non-Web initiatives, such as an app, a YouTube channel and live meetups. He indicated the things BuzzFeed will not be doing: Live paid events, print magazines, white-label versions of BuzzFeed. And he reveals that his company is profitable—a rarity for Web-only startups.
As part of his thank-yous, he cites the work of various content, technology, data and marketing teams. Then Peretti gets into some interesting territory.
“Most other publishers integrate off-the-shelf products built by others, but this full-stack, vertically integrated approach was worth the significant, multi-year investment and is paying off fantastically today,” Peretti said. “There are great tech companies and great editorial institutions, but it is very rare for one company to take both as seriously as we do.”
This is an important point. Very few traditional media companies look at their businesses this way. And that serves to ensure that they are perennially a half-lap or more behind technology companies like Google and Facebook, which understand the direct relationship between content and technology, and how it drives the new types of media consumption. It’s simply not about monthly magazines, with a front-to-back pattern, and traditional devices like the TOC and a feature well.
This leads to the really interesting core of the memo, where Peretti pivots into a discussion of the characteristics and economic prospects of BuzzFeed (and presumably other pureplay media companies) compared to traditional media companies.
“Facebook, Twitter, and the other Silicon Valley-based social sites are amazing distribution platforms, but user generated content alone isn’t enough to fill the hole left by the ongoing decline of print newspapers and magazines,” he said. “The world needs sustainable, profitable, vibrant content companies staffed by dedicated professionals; especially content for people that grew up on the web, whose entertainment and news interests are largely neglected by television and newspapers.”
This is all true. It’s important to hear, even if his point about the “Silicon Valley-based social sites” ought to be looked at with skepticism. That’s because the basic dynamic of social sharing undermines the profit-generating ability of news organizations, and because BuzzFeed’s founding idea is about creating (and also finding and sharing) content for those same “Silicon Valley social sites.” You can’t have it both ways.
Still, Peretti is pointing to a new future, and he elaborates in nine additional points, covering everything from news to mobile to international coverage.
(The point about being an international brand is especially valuable. Old-school media companies launch international editions. Technology companies, and, Peretti said, BuzzFeed, are one brand, one content package, translated and presented to different markets.)
One of Peretti’s points is that his company is investing in news. “There is a huge opportunity to be the leading news source for the social, mobile world,” he wrote. “As we saw during the 2012 election, the Boston bombings, and our LGBT focused coverage of the Sochi Olympics, a new generation of readers are turning to us for news.”
You didn’t need to search very hard last week to find a contrary perspective, one that Peretti never addresses. Jeff Bezos, the Amazon CEO who just bought the Washington Post for $250 million, gave his first interview—to the Post. Said Bezos:
“The Post is famous for its investigative journalism. It pours energy and investment and sweat and dollars into uncovering important stories. And then a bunch of Web sites summarize that [work] in about four minutes and readers can access that news for free. One question is, how do you make a living in that kind of environment? If you can’t, it’s difficult to put the right resources behind it.”
Bingo. If BuzzFeed is truly going to succeed in homegrown news, it needs to crack that code. Nothing that I’ve seen indicates anyone—including anyone at BuzzFeed—has figured that out.
And then there’s advertising. “Part of being a great business is being a “must buy” for advertisers who have many options,” Peretti said. “This means giving advertisers the full advantage of our scale, our data, our creative team, our social and mobile reach, and our technology platform. We have more expertise about social content than any other company. We can light up the social web for an advertiser across Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, with content that is worth clicking and sharing.”
Peretti has done a lot of thinking and writing about how content is shared. He’s serious and knowledgeable about his business. The challenge with that is that BuzzFeed’s own advertising model is based on a trend that works against media companies. BuzzFeed specializes in native advertising—advertising that looks and feels like and lives in the same format and in the same context as BuzzFeed’s (and other media companies’) own content. That is innovative, for sure, but it plays into another major trend—companies creating their own content and building audiences on their own, without the traditional dependency on media companies. This, combined with the targeting capabilities social sites and Google, enables non-media brands to create content, engage audiences, identify leads and sell products and services without the same level of reliance on third party companies.
I love the clarity of Peretti’s vision. That doesn’t mean there aren’t significant trends playing against BuzzFeed.