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Hi, I'm Tom Woolf and I have been practicing public relations and offering marketing communications strategies for 20 years. And I'm still learning from people like you. Drop me a line!

  • 27Jul

    We seem to be up to our ears in media scandals these days. From the News of the World hacking scandal to the latest bad-boy behavior in Washington, D.C., the market seems ripe for experts in crisis communications.

    Which is why I was heartened to read in Entrepreneur magazine’s “Daily Dose” this week profiling the proactive action that Blake Mycoskie, founder and “Chief Shoe Giver” of TOMS Shoes, took to deal with his own communications crisis. Blake Mycoskie of TOMS Shoes

    It seems that following a successful presentation at this year’s SXSW Interactive Conference, Mycoskie was asked to speak to a Christian organization called Focus on the Family. During his SXSW speech, Mycoskie talked about launching TOMS shoes as a socially responsible company that has been providing free footwear to impoverished children around the globe. After speaking to Focus on the Family, Christianity Today wrote an article suggesting that TOMS Shoes had forged an alliance with the Christian group, which had a firm stance against abortion and same-sex marriage; positions that were in direct opposition to Mycoskie’s equality message, and the foundation message for TOMS Shoes.

    Here’s where Mycoskie demonstrates that he and his PR team are on the ball.

    Rather than trying to sweep the accusations under the carpet or point fingers at Christianity Today, Mycoskie took to the web to issue an apology and get the attention, and ultimately support, of his critics.

    He turned to Facebook and Twitter to listen to outraged customers and hear their complaints, and respond.

    He worked with Ms.Magazine to launch a petition to Change.org in favor of , coincidentally on the eve of passage of same-sex  marriage law in New York (a large market for TOMS). Mycoskie was quick to issue his own apology to set the record straight.

    He issued a written heart-felt apology on his own blog, stating:

    When I accept an invitation for a public speaking engagement, my purpose is to share the TOMS story and our giving mission. In no way do I believe that this means I endorse every single aspect of the organization I am speaking to. That may be naïve, and you may disagree, but it is my sincere belief.

    TOMS and I have made mistakes internally and externally over the past several weeks, and I am deeply sorry for letting you down. We have learned a lot and are taking steps so that they do not happen again. I regret that I, and many of you, have been pulled into this issues debate as a result – which was never our intention. However, my biggest regret is that the controversy has disrupted our effort to convene people of good will around our similarities rather than our differences, so that we can join together in serving those in the greatest need while inspiring others to do the same.

    Once he inadvertently put his foot in it by speaking before an audience with a contrary political agenda, Mycoskie did everything right in extricating himself from the mess:

    • He immediately started talking to his followers and his customers to gather information and get feedback. Social media has become a terrific forum to establish immediate customer dialogue.
    • He was proactive in taking charge of the crisis, admitting his error in judgment, and setting the record straight, without laying blame or finger-pointing.
    • He took personal responsibility, stepping forward to face the music and accept responsibility without hiding behind corporate mouthpieces or minions.
    • He was sincere and empathetic in his apology to his followers.

    The result has been positive to Mycoskie and TOMS Shoes. The executive comes across as a straight-shooter and a mensch who made an error in judgment. The response was cogent, rational, and appropriately apologetic and sincere. If anything, this crisis has strengthened TOMS Shoes’ brand image and brought in even more customers while restoring the faith of his followers.

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  • 20Jul

    I have been running into a lot of discussion about competitors lately. I have a client who is assessing white papers and industry analyses for potential marketing applications, but, of course, the competition is mentioned in each of these reports. That’s balanced and responsible reporting. If you want to commission your own white paper that expounds the glories of your product or technology, then you can commission your own, but it wont’ have the weight of a true competitive overview.

    It amazes me how many of my clients over the past 20 years have been obsessed with their competitors. I have had clientsOscarGrouch approach me to do news releases about competitive face-offs in trade magazines and exp0lain why we had to outline, in detail, how their speeds and feeds are faster than the competition, and provide specific names and metrics. In the last few months, I have even seen a competitor of one of my clients go to the extreme of issuing an unapproved press release explaining how a Fortune 500 company (and a customer of my client) was using their technology – a bold-faced lie.

    The sprit of economic Darwinism has always been a motivator in business. Today it is driving innovating on all fronts. Toyota has demonstrated the economical viability and popularity of hybrid cars, and there are dozens of copy cats entering the market. Facebook has proven such a success that the social media space continues to boom with new competitors, the latest entry in the social media race being Google+. Competition is healthy because it promotes innovation.

    However, in marketing and PR, the rule is to learn from your competition, but never mention them. As Machiavelli once wrote, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer,” so you need to keep a close eye on where the competition are appearing, what they are saying, and who is following them. That task has become much easier in the era of the web and social media, so follow their followers and keep your eyes and ears open. But whatever you do don’t mention them by name in your own press or marketing material – why give them the free publicity? And why undermine your own authority and assumed leadership by pointing to the other guy and saying, in essence, “But we’re better than they are…”

    Another popular phrase talks about mud slinging, and when you sling mud, some of that mud will land on you. This is especially true in marketing. Even if you are the CEO of Microsoft, dissing the competition is a bad idea.

    So what can you do to effectively combat the competition without looking like a bully, a whiner, or a fool? Outmnarket then!

    1. Take the high ground, and hold it! Be the authority. Instruct without being demeaning and show the market you know your stuff.

    2. Lead by example. Show that you have, indeed, built a better mousetrap by offering data on return on investment, proof of value, and why your customers love you and mice fear you.

    3. Enlist evangelists. Get customers and others to sing your praises. Third-party validation is always more powerful than comparison shopping.

    4. Let the truth set you free. If you trash the competition or, worse, tell lies to make your point, the truth will find its way to your customers and prospects and the trash talk will only sully your reputation. You never win by lying.

    Keep your campaign positive, forthright, and real, and forget about the competition. Win by playing your own game and listening to customers and the market. If you see your competition winning business where you can’t, change the rules and promote your strengths to gain market share back. And if the competitor starts pointing fingers and shouting “J’accuse!, let them. Keep to your high ground and they will slide back down the hill in their own mud. But don’t engage because when you get into a name-calling contest, everyone loses.

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  • 14Jul

    As PR people and marketers, we are in the idea and information business. We help clients formulate and package new ideas that, in turn, help them solidify and promote their unique brand value. But can you own an idea or the process that leads to an idea? If you come up with a new concept for a client, can you then use that same idea or concept for another client? How much of what you deliver is their intellectual property and how far do you have to go to protect your own intellectual property?

    What prompted this chain of thought was a situation that arose with a client recently. One of their senior managers was using information gathered for the company to feed his personal blog about a semi-related topic. Was this theft of IP? Was this individual stealing IP from the company even though he wasn’t using it for competitive purposes or to make money from the data?

    First, let’s consider what, exactly, is intellectual property. According to CSO magazine, IP can be broken down into four basic categories: patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets. These are fairly straightforward concepts and the notion of protecting them is well-defined. But what about protecting an idea? As the CSO article states, “But IP can also be something broader and less tangible than these four protected classes: it can simply be an idea. If the head of your R&D department has a eureka moment during his morning shower and then applies his new idea at work, that’s intellectual property too.”

    Intellectual property (IP) can be anything from a particular manufacturing process to plans for a product launch, a trade secret like a chemical formula, or a list of the countries in which your patents are registered. It may help to think of it as intangible proprietary information. The formal definition, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization is creations of the mind — inventions, literary and artistic works, symbols, names, images, and designs used in commerce. IP includes but is not limited to proprietary formulas and ideas, inventions (products and processes), industrial designs, and geographic indications of source, as well as literary and artistic works such as novels, films, music, architectural designs and web pages.

      

    So how far do you go to protect ideas as well as other creative products? Consider the case of the Winklevoss twins, who accused Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg of stealing their idea when he created Facebook. They took their case to court and the outcome was never really satisfactorily decided. Did they lose a potential billions of dollars because Zuckerberg violated their intellectual property rights by stealing an idea? Who’s to say.

    However, the concept of IP can place those of us who create material for clients in a quandary from time to time. For example, if I use proprietary information to help a client develop a new brand strategy, can I then take that same information and use it elsewhere for a similar project? If it creates a conflict of interest by helping a competitor, then ethically the answer is clearly “of course not,” but if you are using the same intellectual process or concepts to develop a non-competing brands…?

    And consider the challenges of copyright infringement. When I write an article for publication on behalf of a client, the work belongs to the publication. In fact, I routinely ghostwrite magazine article for clients, and as part of the process we usually have to surrender the rights to the work to the magazine that prints it (or at least surrender first time serial rights). I often get questioned by my clients about this practice, since they want to use the article for other purposes as well. The publication certainly can copyright the article but they can’t copyright the ideas in the article. If the content is original (i.e. not plagiarized) then you can always rewrite it using the same ideas to create a new work.

    And what about IP and blogging? It has become common practice to “borrow” content from other blogs and articles posted on the web and repost them to your blog with a fresh viewpoint. In the blogosphere, giving an acknowledgment to the original source and essentially saying “this is my take on someone else’s good idea” seems to be fair game. But what if you repurpose someone else’s blog content for your for-profit blog, essentially using someone else’s freely posted ideas to make money?

    I think the question of abusing IP largely boils down to who profits? Who benefits from someone else’s intellectual property is the litmus test as to whether or not there is an IP infringement. If IP is tied to a specific brand, product, of process that is tied to profits, then it has real value and as property should be protected. That doesn’t mean there aren’t gray areas. Consider the case of a piece of software code that finds its way into a competing software product. The patent attorneys spend a lot of time and money trying to ascertain if a piece of code is unique and therefore intellectual property, or if it is a more generic expression of a machine instruction that can’t be legally protected.

    As a consultant, I apply a simpler criteria. Clients own the end product but I own the process to create the product. If I create an article or a press release or even a brand strategy for a client, they own that material as a deliverable for which they contracted. However, the templates I use and the process behind the deliverable are my intellectual property, and I get to reuse it as part of my service and brand. if I deliver a crisis plan to a client, for example, the specifics and protocols in that plan are theirs. However, the format, templates, and process I use to generate that plan remain my IP. Their IP – the plan, or article, or white paper, or brand strategy – is a tangible asset that promotes profit for their company. The process to create the IP deliverable remains the secret sauce that allows us to provide value as communications professionals.

    I’d love to hear your stories from the field on your struggles with IP. Please comment or drop me an email.

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  • 06Jul

    The Gates of Hell by Auguste RodinOne of the biggest challenges of working with clients is helping them achieve their objectives without investing too much of your ego in the process. Over the years I have worked with clients of all shapes and sizes, both as a consultant and as part of an agency team. Public relations and marketing communications services need to fall somewhere short of “the customer is always right”; perhaps it’s safer to say “the customer is never completely wrong.”

    While there are some who argue that to be a successful executive, you need to have psychopathic tendencies, I do know that successful senior managers have very healthy egos, don’t often take criticism well, and are very wedded to their own ideas. I can’t recall how many times I have had a client come to me with a project already mapped out in his or her head, complete with impossible targets and unrealistic deadlines and the mandate, “Make it so!” Your job is to assess the situation and determine if you can pull the rabbit out of the hat, or reset the scope and expectations of the project so you can pull off a lesser miracle, make the client happy and help him or her achieve his goals, and still look like a hero.

    Of course, agency executives and consultants have egos too. I have been in a number of meetings where the senior executive on the account clashes with the client in a battle of wills over who is right and who has the best approach or idea. I have worked with consultants with the same challenge. Their argument is “you are paying me all this money for my opinion, why won’t you listen to me?” (Of course, one of the reasons consultants become consultants is that they don’t play well with others, especially authority figures, so consulting is preferable to unemployment. But I digress.)

    Trying to win an argument with your client may be good for your ego but it’s bad for business.

    As with most interpersonal relations, you need to learn how to pick you battles. There are so many small things that you can let go, despite the fact it may hurt your professional pride, if it doesn’t’ compromise your professional integrity. Let’s look at some specifics.

    Writing has become a battleground where I am prepared to give ground on a regular basis. One of the biggest complaints within the PR community is that the latest crop of PR professionals are such atrocious writers (note: the age group varies depending on how long you have been in the profession). You can argue about grammar, usage, the use of the serial comma, and whether AP Style is dead. At the end of the day, you want to make sure you made your point, and there are no glaring spelling or grammatical errors. A common problem I see among PR professionals is writing and rewriting a press release or other copy, not because it’s wrong but because the text needs polishing or doesn’t conform to house style. While this may chew up a lot of billable time, in many cases it’s wasted effort. Early in my career, I had a client who referred to this as the “happy/glad” syndrome; there are different ways to express the same idea, so at the end of the day what does it matter? In cases where a client has an emotional commitment to the way a press release or article is written, there is no reason to argue.

    Then there are the ethical issues. I have had clients ask, no tell me to lie to a reporter. Of course, I refused. There also have been instances when a client has lied to me and I, in turn, lied to a reporter. In such cases, it’s my reputation at stake and I will resign the client in a heartbeat. As I explain to all my clients, my integrity with journalists is my bread and butter, despite the fact they write the checks, so if they ask me to do something unscrupulous or dishonest, it’s a deal-breaker.

    And then there’s everything in between. The smart PR professional doesn’t let his ego get in the way of his judgment. If you adopt that as a cardinal rule, you can navigate most client situations to a happy outcome for all, even if they don’t do things your way. Maintain your professionalism and always give your best counsel, but be prepared to compromise when the need arises. The best public relations professionals are excellent diplomats, and in the end, you have to remember that you are just the messenger. What’s the point in getting shot?

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