• 23Jun

    Coneheads-movie-01 I have always considered BrandWeek to be an insightful publication, and I spotted a recent piece by editor Todd Wasserman aimed directly at the PR community, “Just Hitting the Wire Now: Your Press Release Sucks.” In it, Todd makes some very valid points about the wooden language the PR profession has adopted to try to get their point across in news releases. As he says,

    “These days, the odd, stilted prose lurking in most anything issued by the PR department stands out more than ever because few people talk or write with much formality anymore. Yet in Press Release Land, people converse like the narrators of Eisenhower-era educational films. Of course, strip away that Conehead syntax and you realize that these automatons aren’t saying much anyway.”

    To make his point, Wasserman deconstructs an AT&T press release, pointing out that after you get past the verbal flourishes and the complex sentence structures, there’s really no news in the news release in any case. Why not just state your case? Why can’t you just say, “Sales fell last quarter by 5%” or “We think our new product is easy to use”? His point is that journalists in general hate press releases, and that they will uncover the real story in the release no matter how hard you try to hide it, assuming there is a story to be told.

    “Journalists generally hate press releases, and for good reason. The quotes in them are so bizarrely written that they bring a false note to any story. Yet, if the quote was in plain English, reporters might be more apt to cite it.”

    I don’t think so. I have never seen a journalist worth his salt take a quote from a press release. Beside, the major point that Todd is missing is that press releases are no longer written for journalists, and they haven’t been for some time. Although reporters can still get all the background details they need from a news release, even if they have to read around the superlatives and obfuscation, news announcements are aimed at a different audience.

    Let’s consider the evolution of the press release.

    Originally, in the days before e-mail and the Web, press releases actually were written for reporters. They were handed out at news events, distributed at trade shows, and I even remember spending countless hours stuffing envelopes to mail releases to press contacts. Then things changed. With the coming of the Web, consumers, prospects, and shareholders no longer waited for the press to digest and regurgitate press releases. Now they go right to the source, using Google or Yahoo or Bing to hone in on the news they want. Of course, the journalist’s role as interpreter is still essential; their job is to remove the obfuscation and reveal the true meaning under the painted prose. But for those who write them, press releases have become an effective tool to present their message directly to their audience. The form has evolved so even when you have to report bad news, you try to put a happy spin on the tidings to please your market.

    So while the basic framework of the press release has remained intact, the content has evolved. Quotes aren’t supposed to be quotable; they are for posturing or injecting your opinion into a document that is supposed to be largely factual.

    It has also become commonplace to use more adjectives and superlatives in news announcements, injecting phrases like “first” or “biggest” or industry jargon like “best of breed.” This is part of the evolution of the press release as sales tool. Many of my clients now look at press releases as a means to reach customers and contacts, not the press. So they want to see some sizzle in the copy, even if it detracts from the facts.

    And these days, the news is being driven by the Web, and news release writing is being shaped by search engine optimization and key word search. In theory, a well-written press release is more searchable and SEO-friendly than a badly written release, but that doesn’t prevent the marketing team from adding key phrases and key words to try to improve search, which just obscures things even further.

    Which brings me to probably the primary reason that press releases are so badly written; because they are written by committee. No matter how solid your training as a writer or journalist, no matter how lucid your headline, no matter how concise your lead, you know that somewhere along the chain of approval someone with a different perspective or agenda is going to introduce a different slant, add an adjective, or find some way to spin the message. The more sensitive the information, such as a drop in sales or a less-than-sterling product announcement, the harder the committee will attempt to bury their disappointment in obscure language.

    I would like to think that the art of writing a clear, concise, informative news announcement is not dead. Even though the press release has taken on a wide range of new responsibilities, I hope that the form still retains value as a way to disseminate objective information to people who truly need to know. However, I also know that as long as the press continues to have an impact on society, my clients will continue to use press releases as a means to spin the news and tell their story in their own way with their own rules.

  • 20Jun

    When I started out as a consultant 20 years ago, I had the good fortune to connect with a very loyal client who would bring me in to support whatever company he was working with at the time, either as a C-level executive or as a member of the board. He and I created an established approach to working together, determining how to approach a target market and build buzz to promote his latest venture. Although he is no longer with us, he had a favorite phrase that I often quote to clients and prospects, “You can pay me for process, or you can pay me for results. Process will be a lot more expensive.”

    I remembered this saying again this week when I was following a thread from one of my LinkedIn Groups discussing fees for service. The originator of the thread was discussing the fact that he had a project that had now take about three times the amount of time he had anticipated, and would it be appropriate to go back to the client to adjust the fees for service. The overwhelming response from those on the threads was, “No, you can’t go back and ask for more money.” It’s up to you to determine the cost for your services, in advance, and then live with the consequences. The client should be expected to pay for the end result, not your process to achieve that result.

    That said there are tools you can use to limit your exposure, and educate your client about the process at the same time. I usually try to separate the contract from the actually scope of work. The contract should be the binding agreement that reflects the legal commitment for each party, basically, I will work for you and you will pay me, and if we disagree this is how we will resolve it. Separate from contract you need to define the actually scope of the project, including outlining steps, deadlines, and associated fees (either as a lump sum or as incremental sums, depending on how much visibility you want to give the client into your process). The idea is to make sure the client understands exactly what you are willing to do for your fee, and helps set parameters that are binding to the contract. I usually refer to the scope of work as Exhibit A in the contract and have the client sign the scope of work to demonstrate they understand what, specifically, they are buying.

    How you have a defense mechanism against “scope creep.” If the client comes back and asks you for something that is clearly outside the scope of the defined project, then you can point to your scope of work and say, “sorry, you didn’t contract for that.” There are some specific steps you can undertake to make sure that you have properly defined your project so you don’t “under bill,” and your client knows he or she is getting value for their money.

    1. Set clearly defined objectives for the project in advance – Make sure you know what the outcome of the project is supposed to look like. How does your client define success?
    2. Create a step-by-step plan – You don’t have to share all the details of the plan with your client, but make sure that your spreadsheet includes all the steps to achieve success. You don’t want to charge your client for process, so you better have your process buttoned up so you can make an accurate estimate.
    3. Be specific in outlining the scope of work – One of the challenges of marketing and communications projects is that the process is often ill-defined. For example, if you are planning a media tour, you may have to be flexible on deadlines to accommodate editorial schedules, and you may or may not want to define the number of meetings you plan to deliver, e.g. “a minimum of X and a maximum of Y.” Or when dealing with press release development, it’s not uncommon for release revisions to get out of control so you may want to define release development, e.g. one draft and two revisions. How specific you want to be about your work is a matter of your experience and your knowledge of your client.
    4. Use a change in scope as an opportunity to redefine the project. If the client wants more from you, that’s great! It gives you an opportunity to revise your proposal and demonstrate how you can deliver more value, more results, for a little more money. Use a change in scope as a bargaining point. The trick is to not be too rigid so you alienate your client.

    Of course, you can’t always account for every contingency. For example, if you commit to helping a client launch a new product at a trade show, there may be unexpected elements or steps that you can’t anticipate, such as having to support a show guide, an unexpected partner announcement, or some other last-minute opportunity. You can’t always go back and says, “Sorry, that’s extra,” especially if a few hours or extra work to cover the unexpected will make you look like a hero. You have to be prepared to go the extra mile for the sake of good client relations.

    Some of those commenting on the original LinkedIn Group thread say they believe that the client/contractor relationship is adversarial by necessity; that the client is always trying to get as much work as he or she can for free. I disagree. A good client relationship is a partnership, where you want to give maximum value by delivering for a fair rate. If the client underpays you, or tries to take advantage of you, then they know you won’t deliver your best work. If you adopt a policy of underpromise and overdeliver, then you can maintain a solid relationship with any client, without having to invest unpaid hours that fall outside the scope of the project.

  • 14Jun

    I am writing this blog entry on a shiny new Toshiba laptop computer, having struggled to keep my trusty old Dell laptop afloat for the past few weeks. Since I am an aspiring literati as well as a marketing guy, I am really poor at doing my own IT, and my old computer kept deteriorating after replacing the second hard driveand recovering from a nasty virus, so it was time for an upgrade. This brings me to the topic of backups.

    Since I run my entire business on my computer, I have become a fanatic about redundancy. Backups are our friends, and I learn that lesson again and again on a regular basis. (The latest fiasco was spending days trying to recover from a corrupted Outlook .PST file, but that’s a story for a different forum and a different audience.) Backup files can save you when you really need them, and with more consumer cloud computing tools emerging, there’s almost no excuse not to keep a backup handy. I have become a recent advocate of Carbonite, not because it does a better backup job or is less expensive than any other package (how hard is it to store bits and bytes and provide web access?), but because I can access Carbonite backup files from my iPhone. I already have been saved on more than one occasion because I was able to immediate send a profile sheet or press release from a backup when I didn’t have my laptop handy.

    But what about your social media persona? Do you back up your online brand? Clearly you should. What if someone hacks your life? It’s very common to have your Facebook account hacked, but if you lost control of your online identity would you be able to recover? I recently ran across a blog post on the Gray Matter Minute that provides tips and a list of social media backup tools including Backupify, Tweetake, and Socialware Sync, all designed to archive your online activities for later recovery.

    Of course, it may not be important for you to keep a record of every Tweet or every Facebook exchange. But keeping track of your online activities is becoming increasingly important for legal considerations. Through my work with client FaceTime Communications, I am learning more about regulated industries like banking, financial services, energy trading, and others that have to archive every electronic conversation, including social media exchanges. Bodies such as FINRA, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, are issuing new guidelines that define postings on Facebook and other social media sites as advertising or soliciting potential clients, which means conversations need to be stored and searchable in case of an audit. Having a reliable backup of your online activity could save an enormous amount of time and expense.

    So consider backing up your online life. Having an archive your online activities is not a bad idea, especially if you have to justify what you may or may not have said later. You never know when you might be dragged into some kind of legal action for something you said online. And you never know when you may have to produce evidence to your best friend or your spouse if you ever get into a tit-for-tat argument about something allegedly shared online. You just never know.

  • 03Jun

    Following my last blog post, I have been thinking about online tribes and how the tribal nature of social media, and wondering if online tribes really have that much power. One of my clients refers to the navel gazing on Twitter, and I know that my own social media efforts tend to keep me in a circle of like-minded tribe members, which doesn’t necessarily engender fresh thinking, or fresh contacts that can build your brand.

    Then I saw this video by cultural thinker Seth Godin on TED about the power of the tribes we lead. Godin’s argument is that all of us have a mission, whether we acknowledge it or not, to change the world around us. He also argues that we are on the cusp of changing the way ideas are exchanged. All of us are in positions of leadership, and the power of the Web and social networking plays a huge role here.

    Godin’s argument is that you change the world through connections. We all belong to different tribes, and you can seek out like-minded tribe members, and when the tribe becomes big enough, you suddenly have a movement. The Obama election campaign is a prime example. This may have been the first presidential election won via the web because it became a tribal movement. The trick is to find the true believers who will carry your message to the next set of believers, and suddenly it goes viral.

    So once again, it’s about expressing your passion and finding a way to express that passion to your tribe, so they can carry the word. Suddenly, my insular world of like-minded network connections takes on a greater importance. If you can find a way to lead them, you can effect change.

    As a PR professional, I was particularly interested in Godin’s diagram of what drives change. It starts with telling a story. The story lets you connect with the tribe, from which you can lead a movement and effect change. But it all starts with a story, which is something that PR professionals traditionally do well.

    So the power of social media is in the potential to build a tribe. The question is if you are up to the challenge to become a tribal leader.

    Check out the video and post comments on what you think.



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