• 03Apr

    Part of my client responsibility is social media management, which means both promoting good news through targeted social media channels, and being prepared to react when the news is bad. The Web in general and social media in particular has changed all the rules of corporate communications, and it has become even more challenging to respond fast enough and in the right way.

    Lies, Damn Lies, and the Internet

    The first rule of social media is don’t believe everything you read.

    The news business has always been about getting it first before getting it right. Since social media is such an immediate and reactive information platform, the first news regarding any crisis, including a corporate crisis, is often garbled or flat out wrong. For example, early news reports after the Boston Marathon bombing based on anonymous sources said an arrest had been made, prompting the FBI to call for media restraint and to verify reports “through appropriate official channels.”

    In a crisis, misinformation often abounds. While social media can be incredibly valuable for breaking news, as in the case of Arab Spring, it also can lead to misinformation and lies that can damage reputations. Your first rule as a communications professional or even a social media citizen is think before your click. Don’t forward un-validated misinformation. When a crisis strikes, 99 percent of the time the first reports will include errors so don’t click in a crisis.

    If you are responding to an incoming social media storm in response to a client crisis, be sure you have the facts and the sources to back them up before you respond. Just as the FBI in Boston called for the media to verify before they tweet, you should be reassuring and provide facts that counteract misinformation. Never get into an argument online, you’ just look like another troll. Instead, counter misinformation with correct information using an authoritative voice and source.

    Plan for the Worst, In Advance

    Given the immediacy of social media, your best defense strategy is to be prepared in advance. If you are dealing with a client crisis, you should have a social media crisis management plan. Here are some proactive steps to take to avert social media crises:

    1. Monitor – Keep an eye on social media channels as part of routine brand management. Use Google news and online search services to watch for any negative news. Also, keep an eye on company accounts to monitor for hackers as well as naysay
      ers.
    2. Be thoughtful in your response – Not all negative comments promote a crisis. Part of the role of social media is to promote dialogue so give the naysayers their say. Show them respect and acknowledge their right to an opinion. If the company is in the wrong and receiving criticism founded in fact, then apologize and outline a remediation strategy. If the criticism is based on misinformation, offer correct information respectfully and clearly, pointing to facts and backup resources where possible.
    3. Remember context – Not all social media is equal. If you are a B2B company, flamerson LinkedIn are more important than Facebook critics. If you are a B2C company, then misinformation and bad reviews are more important. Be prepared to speak to the needs and interests of your target audience through the appropriate social medium.
    4. Apply social media policies – One of the best defenses against social media madness is managing corporate outreach. It’s common, and suggested, to have a well-defined policy in place outlining what employees can and can’t say about their employer online. Many companies just forbid it altogether. Also be sure to have a handful of designated social media correspondents who are trained in social media and know how to handle social media reputation management.
    5. Respond, don’t react – The best advice for dealing with a social media crisis can be taken from that well-known book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – “Don’t panic!” The worst thing you can do is react to a crisis without a well-considered response. Remember that sometimes the best response is no response, so be sure of your strategy before you dive in.
    Jay Baer of Convince and Convert cites three elements that are required to define a social media crisis:
    1. Information asymmetry – When you don’t know anything more than the public knows. If you are in the dark you can’t manage the message.
    2. A decisive change from the norm – If you get the same criticism or experience routine complaints that’s the norm. If, however, something unusual creates a problem or scandal, that’s a crisis.
    3. Potential material impact on the company – Consider scope and scale of the message. If it’s a complaint about service or something routine then it probably won’t affect the business. If it’s a financial or criminal scandal, a product failure that threatens health, or some other disaster, then you have a crisis.

    So the next time you see incoming flak from social media, consider your options before you respond. Not every criticism is a crisis, and any crisis demands a considered response. Just remember to think before you click.

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  • 04Feb

    Public relations professionals have always been storytellers. Our job has traditionally been to identify the interesting storyline in the client’s company or product and articulate that story to reporters, editors, and analysts, who in turn will report it to their audiences.

    The rules of professional storytelling have changed.

    Now, instead of pitching stories to the media, we are more often telling stories to help clients attract customers. More magazines are abandoning print in favor web publishing. And with this transition, we are seeing more B2B and consumer media sites that are hungry for fresh content, and fewer journalists and staffers producing articles. The void is being filled by contributors from all areas, especially PR and business. As Christopher Penn, Vice President of Marketing Technology at Shift Communications, writes:

    “As traditional media either evolves or dies, the traditional media relations-only model of PR will evolve or die with it. Public relations work will transform more into earned, owned, and paid media generation, and PR professionals will find themselves increasingly doing work that transcends the traditionally rigid boundaries of earned, owned, or paid media.”

    As professional storytellers, trained PR professionals are in a better position to create quality content  that is more relevant to our client’s market audience. With the explosion of online content designed to drive SEO, our job today is to help the client tell their story in a compelling way to build audience loyalty, not just create link bait. Effective storytelling builds market audience and promotes audience loyalty by delivering relevant and valuable information.

    Effective PR can drive brand messaging. If your client has a strong value story, it will influence your storyline and permeate all aspects of the client’s content strategy, from the web site to social media to white papers. Smart marketers often start with the PR strategy to develop market messages that can then be applied to the rest of the marketing program.

    Once you have a strong storyline, you can tell the story again and again in different formats. Repurposing content using well-thought-out messages across different media will promote a consistent brand identity and, if you do it right, engage your target market on multiple levels. What starts out as a press release or press pitch should become a blog post, white paper, social media post, or take whatever form makes sense to reinforce the message and reengage the audience.

    Producing relevant content should create a customer feedback loop. As you disseminate new content through various channels you can measure customer engagement by monitoring which channels drive different kinds of traffic. The more you uncover about how your audience engages with the content, the more relevant you can make that content.

    It’s a brave new world for PR and that means developing new skillsets to help keep your clients’ stories relevant and engaging. Think beyond the old media relations strategy and embrace audience engagement. Learn more about SEO, paid placement, new content applications and formats, and how to apply new tools to drive market awareness. Those who can adapt and shape the inbound marketing strategy will be able to demonstrate real client value in measurable ways.

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  • 30Jan

    I have been working with more start-ups and smaller businesses who have been trying to harness inbound marketing using press releases as well as other strategies. News releases still carry a lot of weight with search engines for SEO, and they can be useful for blog fodder and to feed social media channels. However, not every press release is newsworthy, although they really should be.

    In the drive to promote search engine visibility, companies, or more specifically the marketing executives within those companies, have forgotten the first rule of press release writing; ask yourself, “Is it news?”

    Recently I have been receiving more requests for non-news news releases, such as having a “cool” product or adding a new social video to your website. While these types of events may have great import to your company, you have to ask yourself if anyone outside the organization will find the news of interest. If not, it ain’t news.

    Inbound marketing is driven by good content, which means good storytelling. There are any number of formats you can use to tell a good story: a case study, blog post, opinion piece, “how to” article, etc. And while all press releases should tell a good story, not all stories make worthy press releases. Here are just some of the criteria that journalists use to determine news value:

    1. Timeliness – It it’s now, it’s news. Events that are interesting and happening now are newsworthy. When you release a new product, for example, it’s newsworthy the day you release the product, not two months later.

    2. Something new – A new approach, a new standard, a new product, a new hire, a new headquarters; these are all newsworthy because they are new.

    2. Conflict – Industry conflict or the fact you or your company takes a stand that is the polar opposite of an industry leader could be newsworthy.

    3. David vs. Goliath – I hear a lot of clients say they want a David and Goliath story, where they want to take on the big guys and do something they can’t. In the minds of the media, the David vs. Goliath story usually takes the form of fighting for the underdog. Reporters often see themselves as protectors of the truth, and the voice of the disenfranchised, so David needs to be wronged by Goliath to make the story newsworthy. If you are looking for a B2B David-and-Goliath story, then you need to prove that you did something significant that the big competitors could not.

    4. Statistics – Reporters love statistics, particularly if they highlight a trend or shed light on a hot industry topic. If you have statistics that demonstrate market or thought leadership, or make a case for your market strategy, a news release is a good way to get the word out.

    5. Milestones – For public companies, industry milestones such as mergers, earnings, etc., need to be disclosed to the market, and press releases are a good way to do that. For private companies, sharing insight about new customers, earnings, and business operations make you look like a public company, and often get published.

    6. Something that impacts your world – If the news has an impact on your customers or industry, then it is press release-worthy. For example, a new industry standard, or a company acquisition, or even a webinar with insights about what the future might hold will be of interest to someone out there, and so it’s worth disclosing.

    There are a number of other events that reporters love to cover, but most of them involve scandals, disasters, and bad news that you wouldn’t want to package in a news announcement (although you should be prepared with a crisis communications plan).

    Remember that people don’t share sales pitches, but they do share stories. Make sure your news release has a story worth hearing and worth sharing.

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  • 01Apr

    When you start to build a social media marketing campaign, you don’t just charge off and start posting comments and sharing random videos on Facebook. You need to consider your objectives and what you want to gain from social media engagement. You should have a strategy in mind and then use the right tactics to ensure your social media success.

    Here are five easy steps to help you succeed with your social media marketing strategy:

    1. Understand your objectives. Do you have clearly defined goals in mind for your social media program? What are you trying to accomplish? Increase brand recognition? Build an online following? Expand your mailing list? Whatever the objective, be clear about what you hope to achieve so you know success when you see it. (And remember, selling through social media is not acceptable so don’t link social media objectives to sales goals.)

    2. Know your social media channels. Understand how to engage with followers on each social media channel. Facebook, for example, is good to sharing brand information and engaging with customers and prospects. Twitter is good for distributing instant information (it’s been great for those looking for their favorite food truck), and for trending data. LinkedIn is great for business-to-business interaction, especially through the forums. Pinterest is useful for sharing goods and success stories, those “favorite things” that build business. Understanding how your audience uses each channel is the first step to understanding how to engage.

    3. Listen first… The biggest mistake most social media newcomers make is diving in before they test the waters. Take time to listen to what is being said before joining the conversation. You want to go with the flow and attract attention rather than act like a party crasher.

    4. …then engage. Once you understand the nature of the conversation, you can engage appropriately. For example, you can use blog content to promote conversation with contacts on Facebook, or you can post other people’s content. On LinkedIn, however, you can use the same blog but turn it into a question for use in the forums: “Is this your experience?” “How would you handle this situation?”

    5. Measure the results. Set milestones and measure the results. Are you looking for more likes? More followers? More comments? How many new contacts can you now engage with directly, and perhaps promote a separate sales call? Choose metrics that are meaningful to your business and measurable.

    Now assess your progress, and your process. Are you getting the kind of quality social media engagement you want to build your business? Are you getting enough social media exposure, in the right places? Identify the weaknesses in your program, make the necessary adjustments and then rinse and repeat. Part of the secret to social media success is consistency and frequency, so continue to engage as often as you can with quality comments and content.

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  • 05Jun

    The phone interview is dead. Long live the email interview.

    Okay, that’s an exaggeration. However, the email culture is eroding the old fashioned way of interacting with the press, and the way the press interact with their sources, including my clients. Although many reporters still call for quotes and information, more of them are emailing it in, asking for written responses only. This is good and bad for the PR industry.

    I am old enough to remember the days before email, when you had to actually pick up the phone and call a reporter and risk the wrath of interrupting him or her on deadline or getting the verbal cold shoulder – “Not another ^&^&$##@ flack pitch call!” One of the good things about phone work is that it forces you to really do your job and know your stuff, or rather your client’s stuff. You had to be prepared before you dialed with a concise elevator pitch,explaining who you are and why you are calling. You also had to be prepared to read the mood coming over the phone wires: “Is this a good time?” “Are you on deadline?” Can I just a minute to explain why I am calling?” To work the phones you had to be on your game, with a smile in your voice and information at your fingertips.

    trash-mailEmail has changed all that. Now there is more back and forth. More time at the front end of the process to hone your pitch and get it right in writing before you hit the “send” button. There also is more time at the back end to hone your responses and tailor what you say. That’s the good news.

    The bad news is that email doesn’t promote relationship building. It doesn’t provide a chance for dialogue, or for exploring new opportunities or points of discussion beyond the topic at hand. Email tends to be very transactional and lacks color by its very nature, so the challenge is to make your point in writing in a way that is memorable and repeatable, especially if you are trying to do an email interview.

    Email also allows reporters to ignore you in a different way. I can’t think how many pitches or messages dropped into a bit bucket somewhere along the way. Either the reporter on the receiving end marked it as spam, or deleted, or just plain missed it. One of the challenges about email is that it’s easier to pitch reporters, even it it’s a bad pitch. Every ill-formed hey-do-you-want-to-interview-my-client pitch racks up with the hundreds of other pitches in the reporter’s email inbox.

    However, email is becoming more prevalent for interviews, even if it is not necessarily more efficient. I can’t think how many times I have seen a HARO or Profnet request stating “Email responses only, no phone calls please.” But email is an efficient way to deal with logistical issues and other concerns. If you can’t get your client on the phone or you can’t get schedules to align, the time shifting enabled by email could be your only solution. I recently had a challenge interviewing a customer in Moscow for a case study. There was an eleven hour time difference and even when we tried to schedule a call at midnight my time, we couldn’t seem to get together so we resorted to an email interview.

    Some argue that email interviews are lazy and irresponsible. How can you be sure you are getting an unbiased story without a chance to ask candid questions? Doesn’t an interactive exchange both assure better quality information and less bias? There is an argument to be made for that, as stated by Alison Kenney who blogs for PR recruiter Lindsay Olson of Paradigm Staffing:

    A couple of well-regarded blogs have commented on this practice [of email interviews] recently, although mostly from the perspective of the media.

    American Journalism Review wrote about the practice from the journalists’ and editors’ point of view (which is well worth a read). The post expresses concern that email interviews “promote lazy reporting and the use of unreliable sources…”

    PR Daily recently asked, “Is the phone interview dead?” and lamented the lack of color an email interview has in comparison with a phone interview, as well as the lack of natural “back and forth that comes from a conversation. Plus, there’s no personal relationship building, however slight, when everything is done in written form.”

    In response to the PR Daily post, Clay Ziegler did his own experiment and called a dozen working journalists to quiz them about their interview method preferences. He concluded that the phone interview lives and why that’s a good thing.

    Like most changes wrought by new technology (and social media, in particular), old practices may not go away, but new practices – including using IM, Twitter, Facebook and email to get information and quotes for a story – are becoming more and more accepted.

    Alison offers some insights into what to look for when dealing with an email interview and I recommend you read her blog entry.

    Times change, and best practices change with them. New technology enables new approaches and procedures, for good and ill. However, just because we have the means doesn’t mean we should always use them. I am reminded of the texting phenomenon; the balance of having my wife send a text reminder to pick up something at the store versus the teenagers sharing the same couch and texting back and forth rather than having a conversation. Sometimes technology just gets in the way. The same is true with email interviews. They have their place, but there are times when you just need to pick up the phone.

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  • 14Mar

    I saw an interesting post last week on Silicon Valley Watcher. Tom Foremski was commenting on PR firm LaunchSquad and their launch of a new social media and marketing service, Original9 Media. Apparently, this new company was specifically created to combine content creation with online marketing. Foremski quotes LaunchSquad co-founder Jason Mandell as saying:

    We will offer a full spectrum of premium content services including strategy, distribution, analytics, creative, web and mobile content and site/app development, infographic programs, blog creation and management and influencer recruitment, among others.

    This is part of a reinvention plan that’s been underway at LaunchSquad for several years. It’s a new time for marketing and PR and we believe an amazing time to create new types of services based on the original creation and distribution of high quality content.

    It’s the middle ground between ad agencies and PR firms that everyone is acknowledging and running toward…

    Foremski’s response:emperor_has no clothes

    The creation of Original9 is interesting because it seems to split-off that work from the list of PR services that a PR firm such as LaunchSquad would offer. Will clients notice the difference? Or is this a move to help add revenues that would normally be funneled through PR services?

    Thank you, Tom, for pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. C’mon. We do content development now! In fact, I would argue that 90 percent of my job these days is developing and distributing content created to reach customers, and perhaps press and analysts along the way. With the increased decline of reporters and publications and the increase in online publishing and self-publishing, those of us who used to feed the media information are now feeding the social media machine and the web. It’s basically the same process with a different audience.

    As Foremski notes, “In many respects, Original9 is acting as a publisher — a media company.” This move essentially positions Original9 to become a paid content provider, creating information to appeal to a target audience, just like a publisher, or a PR firm for that matter. Semantics aside, what this new firm is doing is the same thing the old firm was doing, but now they get to change the labels and mark up the prices.

    We already offer content services, strategy, distribution, analytics, etc., etc. In fact, targeting blogs and writing for blogs has become a major focus for my consulting firm. So if I call it something different, does that mean I can charge more for my services? I think my clients would notice. And I think they would go to a more cost-effective resource to help them spread the word.

    Call it PR, or marketing, of content development, it’s still working with clients, helping them package their story, and get that story into the hands of people who matter to the client. Whether you do it through handbills, press releases, or blog content, the process is the same.

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  • 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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  • 05Jan

    I have been talking to a lot of executives over the years, gathering information for press releases, case studies, and strategic plans. And as I have become more involved in customer relations, I spend a lot of time talking to IT managers and C-level executives about tactical issues that affect their business. Interviews are tough, because you don’t want just the Jack Webb interview – “Just the facts” – but you want to get the Piers Morgan interview, with deep and colorful, quotable responses.

    Many marketing and PR pros (and even journalists) are being consumed by the ever-increasing demand for content. They have lost the fine points of conducting a really meaningful interview that yields more than just who, what, when, where, and why. Interviewing is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced or you get rusty. I want to thank Carol Tice for providing a refresher course from the freelance writer’s perspective. Here are some of her tips on the best way to conduct an interview, adapted with some of my own experience to make them more relevant for the marketer:phoneinterview

    1. Email exchanges are not interviews. I have been relying more on email questionnaires for convenience, but the information I get from those exchanges is always sparse. I have seen more journalists and analysts doing the same thing, and I have to urge my clients to dig deeper and provide a little color with the facts when they write their responses. Carol also notes that emails are not really quotable as part of best journalistic practice; live interaction is always preferred. You always get more from a spontaneous exchange that is fresh and quotable.

    2. Make a connection. I find that the best interviews come when you establish a rapport with your contact. Take the time to set the stage with a couple of ice breaker questions about family, sports, the weather – something to forge a connection. If you need to use that contact in the future, then be sure to leave the door open for future discussions, and try to leave a thread to reestablish the link. If they are fans of the Red Sox, for example, open with a baseball reference they next time you call.

    3. The subject is as worried about the outcome as you are. Your job is to gather the information for that killer case study, application profile, or for use in a press release. You have something at stake in the conversation. So does the other party. He or she wants to make sure you get your facts straight and don’t make them look foolish to their boss, their peers, or their customers. Use that mutual concern to work together toward the common goal – getting the best story down on paper.

    4. Be prepared. Don’t walk in cold saying, “tell me what you do.” Do your homework. Read the company  web site. Understand the basics of their business. Research their business challenges. You want to bring sufficient knowledge to the interview to ask meaningful and revealing questions, not waste time asking questions to which you should already have the answers.

    5. Respect the interviewee’s time. Schedule your interview in advance, be prompt, and be brief. Executives don’t want to waste a lot of time talking to you so be focused and get the information you need. If possible, leave the door open for a follow-up call or contact for clarification or more information, when you can go into greater depth if you have to.

    6. Be prepared to follow up. Thank your sources. Keep them apprised of the progress for a specific project. Get them to review the content as part of your fact-checking. Be sure that you have your subject’s complete contact information, and determine who else in their organization should be involved in reviews and approvals, or who else might provide additional information.

    Developing marketing content is not the same as writing for a newspaper or a magazine, but the rules of a good interview are still the same. Your objective is to get the best story you can, with all the facts and in living color. The final approval process will be different. You will won’t just be fact-checking, but you usually share the finished product with the interviewee for formal approval. That doesn’t mean you should put the onus on them to fill in the blanks or correct a sloppy interview. Think like a reporter and get everything you need the first time around. It saves a lot of effort and embarrassment later on.

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