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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!

  • 24Feb

    As a marketing and communications professional, I appreciate the challenges of launching any kind of customer outreach program. I have recently been working on a marketing campaign for a client to reach their customer base with a new product, and we have been walking the tightrope of how much outreach is too much? These customers already get two or three regular communications each week with pertinent research and other data. How many times can we add a sales pitch to the mix without alienating our clients? Just because a contact opts into a mailing list doesn’t give you the right to bombard them daily with spam.

    Which brings me to Orchard Supply and the debacle of their new customer loyalty program.

    spam_jpgI went to the hardware store last weekend in search of some sandpaper and stain to refinish a dining table for our deck. When I pulled into the parking lot I noticed a large banner announcing Club Orchard, Really Useful Rewards. My first reaction was: “Cool! Now I get rewards for my home improvement projects. Guess I’ll have to stop going to Home Depot.” So I signed up.

    I got my first communication for the rewards program today.

    Between 5:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m. this morning I received not one, not two, but 20 identical “Welcome to Club Orchard” messages, each inviting me to register online. I found this annoying and laughable at the same time. So I hit reply and basically told OSH corporate to tell their marketing department to get their act together. Naturally, the email bounced, so I had to do some investigating to find the right link, navigate to an online form, and lodge my complaint with OSH corporate. I immediately received a trouble-ticket acknowledgement via email, and about four hours later I received a message thanking me for my efforts and concerns. Shortly after that, I received another canned message of apology – obviously a blanket response to their screw-up earlier in the day. And still later in the day I received TWO MORE INVITATIONS within 10 minutes to register for their new customer loyalty program.

    So between 5:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. I have received 25 separate email communications from Orchard Supply OF NO VALUE TO ME WHATSOEVER.

    There is so much wrong with this program launch:

    1. It took five full days to send a welcome message for the new program. I know I entered my email and telephone number when I checked out at the register. Why wasn’t that information relayed to headquarters and used to IMMEDIATELY generate a welcome message waiting for me when I got home? The system is automated, and it should be simple matter to demonstrate how much the company values my trade with a timely welcome.image

    2. Why do I have to register twice? I registered for this program once at the store with an email and a phone number, then had to register a second time online. This may be one way to address the double opt-in concern but it is clearly awkward. Wouldn’t a confirmation email or some simpler, more customer-friendly approach suffice?

    2. No one bothered to test the message server. It is INEXCUSABLE for anyone to send out the same identical message every six minutes for two hours. The first rule of any marketing campaign is test, test again, and then test some more, and that’s not only valid for marketing messages, but the the delivery technology you are using as well.

    3. The feedback loop is clearly broken. When I correspond with editors, customers, or any group en masse, I am damned sure they have a means to communicate with me simply and easily. I try to use my own email address so an email reply goes right to me. Barring that, I make sure there is some easy way to respond to an email message beyond the required opt-out option. Two-way communications is the key to any successful campaign.

    4. There is no excuse for sloppiness and inattention to simple details. The shear sloppiness of this launch tells me a lot about this company’s marketing capabilities and sets a very low expectation for their customer service program. If they can’t get a simple thing like registering for a customer loyalty program right, then how can I be assured that they can offer reliable in-store service? Is this level of incompetence a reflection of the company overall? (Maybe the clock they used in their email message is really a ticking time bomb.)

    Granted, managing an effective customer loyalty program can be challenging, but when it’s done right, it really pays off. By way of contrast, I give you Safeway.

    clubcardWe all need groceries, and just as I can choose from a number of hardware stores, grocery chains abound. I like to shop at Safeway largely because of my Safeway Club Card. Granted, I have to drive farther to shop at Safeway, parking is not always as convenient, and occasionally they don’t have the specific product I am looking for but I still prefer to shop at Safeway. It’s because the Safeway Club Card has real value for me:

    1. It saves me money. I can see the savings at the register with the card discounts, and they typically are 20% or more.

    2. I can choose how I shop. If I am in a hurry, I often use the self checkout with my discount card – it’s fast and easy, and I still save money.

    3. I get in-store coupons. As a Safeway Card shopper, I get discount coupons at the register. Some are valuable, some are not, but I always check to see what might be useful for my next trip.

    4. I get paperless online coupons. Safeway’s new online shopping program gives me a heads up on sales, discounts, and even can register for product discounts online. The savings are automatically granted at the register when I use my card.

    What’s the common thread here? It’s savings, and its service. Using my Safeway card is easy and painless, and it always delivers a return. And I have multiple ways to get a discount. So it’s worth my going out of my way to shop at Safeway.

    Based on today’s experience, I am not sure I can say the same about Orchard. I guess I’ll have to go back to shopping at Home Depot.

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  • 16Feb

    Public relations is a profession that has long been at war with itself. Those of us who are in PR are used to be calling nasty names because of what we do. The most common is “flack,” and I am still not sure of the etymology of the term. Some of my peers say that Tom Wolfe first coined the term in Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers; others tell me that it has to do with catching enemy fir, such as anti-aircraft shells or flak. in any case, we take heat from both our clients and the media. Event the PRSA is struggling to identify the proper definition for “public relations.”

    Why?

    Because public relations people are inevitably placed in the middle. We often have to help a client tell423899_293305987391663_130828826972714_719915_80234888_nl a bad story or try to put a positive face on a disaster, as well as helping them tell a good story or when they have good news. And as far as the press is concerned, they can’t tell when we have something truly useful or are just trying to hype a client product or service. Reporters have come to distrust and even loathe PR people because all too many of us act like used car salesmen in order to “sell” a bad client story. I think Peter Shankman. the founder of HARO (Help a Reporter Out), summed it up nicely in a Forbes interview this week:

    There will always be problems between PR people and journalists, no matter how much we try and repair the rift. Look, fundamentally, the two are simply designed to oppose. On one hand, you have journalists, who have the job of finding actual news – a good story, a trend, something interesting. That’s not easy to do, and they’re being asked every day to do more with less. On the flip side, you have PR people, who are beholden to the request of the clients – A very simple, yet incredibly complex request: “Get us press.” I’d say the biggest mistake PR people make is not standing up to the client and occasionally saying “Hey, that press release you want us to issue about you repainting the conference room? THAT’S NOT NEWS. NO ONE IS GOING TO COVER THAT, AND IF YOU MAKE US PITCH FIFTY JOURNALISTS ABOUT IT, WE CAN GUARANTEE THAT THOSE FIFTY JOURNALISTS WILL NEVER COVER US AGAIN, EVEN WHEN WE DO HAVE SOMETHING WORTH WRITING ABOUT.”

    For some, the thought of PR ethics is an oxymoron. For others of us who take our profession and its ethics seriously, we understand that our job is to not only counsel the client, but to advocate for the press. When a client has a bad story or wants to publicize the new paint on the conference room, it’s the PR professional’s job to tell the client his story stinks and no one will care. No one wants to tell someone their baby is ugly, but if a story is bad you have to point it out.

    There is a broad-reaching misconception that public relations is the same as publicity. Those who can’t understand the difference are the same folks who think that any press is good press. Publicity is not PR. And any story is not a good story.

    Kudos to my friend, Dr. Mitchell Friedman, who is a long-time PR practitioner and now is teaching PR practice and ethics to the next generation of flacks. As Mitchell points out, publicity is not public relations:

    Public relations has a far different orientation, as noted in PRSA’s aforementioned campaign to redefine the function. Responsibilities include building and managing relationships with an organization’s key audiences (both internal and external); overseeing its reputation (or what’s often referred to as “managing the corporate brand”); and serving as the organization’s conscience. Publicity and media relations are part of this equation, along with a variety of other functions.

    Mitchell has identified eight well-reasoned principals for what makes good public relations which I agree with wholeheartedly. My role as a PR professional has evolved substantially in 20 years. On my best days, I am working with senior management to support corporate marketing, refine and reinforce brand messages, and manage conversations and relationships inside and outside the organization. On my best days, I get to act as a corporate conscience, pointing out when something is wrong and won’t work and how to navigate a bad situation with honesty and integrity. On my bad days, I have to hype a bad product or make something out of nothing, often putting lipstick on the pig to try to hide the fact it’s a pig. Fortunately, since I am self-employed, I have more latitude in telling a client when he or she is wrong, but I recall many instances from my agency days when you grin and agree to whatever the client says because he or she is writing the check.

    It’s past time that those of us in PR stop worrying about the clip count and start worrying about the quality of the story and how we are managing our client’s reputation. Our profession is not about creating buzz but rather building brand and brand awareness. My role continues to broaden as I review web content, help with customer relations, and work with marketing and sales to help my clients promote their brand promise. I rely less on media calls these days and more on web optimization to do my job. That’s because I not just a publicist. I am a public relations professional.

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  • 08Feb

    The only constant is change. And when it comes to client relations, sometimes one of your outgrows the relationship and it comes time to break up. Breaking up is never easy, but when you know the relationship is no longer working, then you have to face facts and tell your client, “I’m sorry, but it’s over.”

    I have had a lot of those moments in the past few weeks. With the coming of the New Year, there are changes in strategy, budget, staff, and what used to be a great working relationship suddenly changes. Here’s a litany of my recent client break-up experiences:

    1. New company direction and budget reset for 2012 – marketing and PR support is no longer a priority.
    2. New marketing executive who decides to bring in his own team.
    3. Economy has reduced the client’s budget to the point where you lose money working for them at a reduced rate.
    4. The client’s demands are starting to take up more of your time, but they won’t  allocate more budget and they are increasingly slow to pay your invoices.

    breaking-upAny of these sound familiar? Working with clients can be a lot like dating. As long as the relationship has mutual benefit then you continue to work together, but if one or the other party becomes disenchanted, well… I actually see it as part of my mission to help my clients outgrow my services. If I am good at my job, the client company’s business will expand to the point where they need more marketing and PR resources, which means it’s time to hire more in-house staff or bring in a bigger firm. I’m always satisfied when that happens because it means I have done my job and they client has evolved to the next level. It’s all part of the business lifecycle.

    Still, breaking up is always hard to do. When it becomes clear that the working relationship is no longer of mutual benefit, it’s time to part company. Sometimes you will find that a client wants too much, or is detracting from more profitable work, or is just too difficult to work with. Pareto’s Principle of 80/20 indicates that 20 percent of your clients probably make up 80 percent of the workload. They also should make up 80 percent of your profits, but not necessarily contribute 80 percent of the headaches.

    When it’s time to say goodbye, it’s always difficult. You don’t want to turn away business, even if it gets in the way of finding something more lucrative. Somehow, the idea of firing a client seems to bad for business, when in reality, getting rid of a bad client is the best thing you can do for your operation.

    So how do you do it? Be professional and be up front. We all like to avoid conflict, and that leads to unclear communications and passive-aggressive behavior that just makes things more difficult. You want to end the relationship in a way that you both have respect for one another, and so you can use that soon-to-be-former client as a reference later on. Here are some tips I’ve borrowed from Nellie Akalp of CorpNet that you should find useful.

    1. Remove emotion from the equation. I know I tend to get pissed off at clients for any number of reasons. Don’t make decisions when you feel angry or hurt; it will be the wrong decision. Instead, assess the client relationship calmly and rationally and weigh the pros and cons before you decide to part ways. If you find your ego being bruised time and again by the same client, then listen to your instincts.

    2. Honor the contract. My contracts have a termination clause – typically from two weeks to 30 days. Be sure you have fulfilled your part of your contract and honored all of your obligations. It’s good business and will help you secure a reference if you need one, and keep you out of trouble. Beside, it’s just the right thing to do.

    3. Schedule a meeting. It’s so easy to send an email or leave a voice mail message. It’s also a cowardly way to avoid confrontation. Schedule a personal meeting or at least a phone call to explain your position, come to a mutual understanding, and discuss any transition. Meeting face-to-face may be uncomfortable but it’s the right thing to do. (You wouldn’t dump your girlfriend with a text message or PostIt would you?)

    4. Be succinct. Don’t rehash all the reasons you are firing the client, or all the good work you have done in the past. What’s the point? Just keep it short and sweet.

    5. Give sufficient notice. Don’t walk out in the middle of a project. Don’t leave the client in a bind by dropping everything. Honor the spirit as well as the specific terms of your contract and provide the best service you can right up to the end. That shows professionalism and a genuine desire to see your client succeed.

    6. Help with a transition. Offer alternative resources. Prepare all the material you need to help the client hand off the work to another resource. Acknowledge your contribution by offering to pass on what you have done and what you have learned so others who follow don’t have to start from scratch.

    Once you recognize the party’s over, leave gracefully. The professionalism of your exit and how you choose to terminate a client relationship says a lot about you, your firm, and your professionalism, and may make the difference in building your brand reputation or making an enemy with unkind words that may follow you to your next gig.

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