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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!

  • 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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  • 26Jan

    I wanted to share an interesting blog from today’s Daily Fix on MarketingProfs contributed by David Reich of Reich Communications. In light of the changes in the role of today’s marketing professionals, the PRSA has been struggling to update the formal definition of Public Relations. They solicited input from their membership and 625 responses were distilled into three definitions. Reich sees flaws in all of them, center_prand so do I. You would think that professionals who deal with branding and brand communications for a living would be able to find a better way to define their own profession, but then this definition has become more challenging because the rules dictating PR have changed.

    I, personally, have been struggling with how to label my evolving role in the marketing and communications process. People ask me, “What do you do?” and I reply, “I’m in public relations.” What image does that conjure up? If you are old school (like me) you think of the characters from Mad Men, schmoozing reporters over cocktails and trying to get stories printed about your clients. Although that perception is antiquated, I know it’s still out there.

    Others who have worked with PR people that our job has to do with helping our clients refine their market message, package it, and get the word out to people who need to hear it. It used to be that our primary job wasn’t really public relations, but rather media relations. Sure, the clients needed help refining their story, identifying what might be newsworthy, and then creating materials like press releases to tell the story, but if I wasn’t working the phone and pumping the story with reporters and the trade editors I clearly wasn’t doing my job. Clients wanted press coverage, period, and that meant getting in front of the media influencers.

    These days, the “public” is back in public relations. Sure a lot of my job still consists of a calling on editors and dealing with the media to promote client news, but now that the Web serves as a self-service news bureau, so it’s equally important to format brand messages to reach consumers and target customers directly. I spend more of my time feeding blogs and developing SEO strategies than I do pitching editors.

    So how does this all translate into the latest definitions of “public relations” as refined by the PRSA? Here are the three definitions that are currently up for consideration:

    Definition No. 1:

    Public relations is the management function of researching, engaging, communicating, and collaborating with stakeholders in an ethical manner to build mutually beneficial relationships and achieve results.

    Definition No. 2:

    Public relations is a strategic communication process that develops and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their key publics.

    Definition No. 3:

    Public relations is the engagement between organizations and individuals to achieve mutual understanding and realize strategic goals.

    Like Reich, I am not really crazy about any of these definitions. The problem with opening these types of initiatives to public vote is you try to create by committee, and the end result is usually a compromise at best and not a definitive statement of purpose or intent. My issues with these definitions is they are too broad, and tend to have buzzwords and catchphrases which are rapidly becoming meaningless. The word “stakeholders” is overused and is starting to lose its core meaning. I also am not sure I understand how to interpret “key publics” or “strategic goals.”

    Reich notes that PR pundit Jack O’Dwyer commented that none of these definitions don’t take into account vertical specialties, such as health care, technology PR, and the like. I agree, and I also note that these definitions fail to capture the broader role of today’s PR professional. These days I find myself doing customer relations, SEO consulting, market research, and general marketing support as well as what could be considered traditional PR work.

    Perhaps the greatest challenge we all face is that the communications market is changing rapidly, and with it our role in that market. The  rules and the tools have changed. I recently cleaned out my office and I found boxes of dusty print labels for press release mailings. It dawned on me that I hadn’t done a press release mailing in over a decade and would probably never have to do one again. And although I continue to work with editors and analysts, I also know that reaching customers directly is now even more important than influencing the influencers. My role continues to change with the needs of my clients, and trying to define what PR really people do on a day-to-day basis is becoming more like holding smoke in your hands.

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  • 07Oct

    Effective crisis communications includes means having a plan in place to deal with an emergency BEFORE the emergency hits. You don’t necessary need to think of every possible crisis, but you should have some basic fire drill procedures in place in case of a corporate crisis or a scandal or some other eventuality. That includes establishing a protocol to designate a leader in time of crisis. You need to find someone who has a clear head and can deal with the crisis clearly and efficiently. However, your designated hitter may not be available when you need them. So you need to have a pinch hitter ready when you need him or her. If you have a smaller organization and the boss becomes unavailable, it’s even more important to have a responsible alternative spokesperson at the ready.

    The trained spokespersons from “The Russians are Coming the Russians are Coming”

    I saw a blog post this week from Jamillah Warner posted on Small Business Trends who offers a “3 Steps to Developing an Emergency Chain of Command for Your Business.” Jamillah offers a solid formula for establishing an emergency protocol quickly and efficiently that mirrors the best practices I recommend to my clients.

    Step 1: Define the emergency.

    This is not as easy as it sounds. It’s simple to think of fire, flood, pestilence, and other natural disasters, since they affect everyone. But it isn’t a real crisis unless there is a victim, or someone who has been perceived to have been harmed in some way. And by their nature, a crisis just happens; you can’t plan for it. So you need to be prepared for any eventuality. When the crisis strikes, you need to have an emergency plan ready, and a spokesperson in place to allay the fears of your customers and deal with the media.

    Step 2. Choose your leaders before you need them.

    When a crisis hits, you don’t want to waste time trying to sort out how to react. Any hesitation is seen as a failure or a chance to “cover up,” whether there is wrongdoing or not. It’s better to assign responsibility in advance. Choose your crisis leaders, define their roles, and train them in advance. And keep the information fresh with regular reminders and meetings. This transfers responsibility to those who need to be prepared should a crisis arise, and makes them feel ready.

    Step 3. Practice, practice, and practice some more.

    There is a reason why fire marshals insist on regular fire drills and emergency services train using mock disasters. It’s because practice makes perfect. Review possible crisis scenarios. Explore appropriate procedures and responses. Let people practice how to respond to an emergency. If you practice regularly, you give your leaders a chance to grow comfortable with handling any type of emergency. You also imprint positive habits and make it easier for the staff to rise to meet the challenge of an emergency. And if you choose the wrong crisis managers, then drills will reveal any problems and give you a chance to correct those problems or find a new leader.

    Crisis communications is too often overlooked, especially by smaller businesses who don’t think they need to be prepared. Everyone needs to be prepared in case of an emergency. Your business could be hit by fire, theft, fraud, or any number of things, and without a crisis plan, the impact could cost your business. You can start by designating the right people to handle emergencies so you can protect your operation.

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  • 30Nov

    imageI love seeing what my fellow professionals are writing about. I turn up lots of interesting tidbits and ideas from my fellow writers and marketeers, and I like to follow a number of bloggers who manage to serve up with fresh content on a regular basis. One of my favorite bloggers is Carol Tice, an accomplished freelance writer who is not only good at her craft, but good at promoting herself.

    I now want to take a moment to share my admiration for successful freelance writers. The first freelancer I ever met was my Uncle Ed, who was very prolific and successful. In the age before the Internet, he would hear a new joke and mail it to Playboy or come up with a new story idea to sell to the New Yorker or Field and Stream. Uncle Ed was creative and a good marketer, able to sell a story idea to a wide range of magazines. Early in my career, when I was working as a magazine editor in Idaho, one of my good freelancer friends, Hank Nuwer, taught me about the discipline of freelance writing. Hank would rise early in the morning, around 3:00, and spend the next eight hours writing, whether the words would flow or not (which left the afternoon free for trout fishing). It’s that kind of focus and discipline that makes a successful freelancer.

    And as I have been following Carol Tice’s blog, I can see she has the same creativity and commitment to her craft as a freelance writer. Her latest blog post about Sarah Palin inspired me, because the lessons she offers to freelance writers to help them promote themselves can be just as easily applied to any public relations endeavor. Her basic point is that Palin has figured out how to get attention, and keep getting attention. Whether you agree with her views or her politics doesn’t matter, she’s a good self-promoter. I have not seen her new reality television show, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” but it has been getting a lot of attention and a fan following. My wife mentioned the show to me over dinner this evening, and even though she is not a fan of Palin’s politics, she said her views of Palin have changed since she saw a couple of episodes of the show. Palin has the promoter’s gene, like Buffalo Bill and P.T. Barnum - she knows how to pack ‘em in and remember why they came.

    And I wish some of my clients could learn from their example. I have been preaching social media to my clients for some time, and the problem most of them have is they are not interesting in being social. They don’t want to invest the energy in promoting their personal brand as an extension of their corporate brand. They lack that promoter gene.

    So here is a quick recap from some of Carol Tice’s tips for freelancers, and why freelance writers or anyone seeking publicity can learn from the Sarah Palin promotional example:

    1. Palin is fearless. She makes a mistake or gets called on some error she makes in a speech and it doesn’t phase her. She just keeps rolling on. I think many PR programs fail largely because of fear of failure. You have to be willing to get out there and take a risk.
    2. Palin loves the limelight. Clearly, she is a believer in the adage that all publicity is good publicity, and she is willing to get other there and mingle to be known.
    3. Palin is not easily embarrassed. She ignores the elephant in the room, like her daughter having a child of out wedlock while she’s running as vice president, and just sticks to her message. None of my clients would be able to show that kind of tenacity in a tough interview.
    4. Palin has a game plan. She is not interested in abandoning the plan just because it didn’t work the first time. She’s refining her strategy and is determined to get elected to higher office.
    5. Palin is clearly different. She is not like most politicians and clearly stands out in a crowd, which makes her easier to promote. And, of course….
    6. Palin is memorable! She makes outrageous comments, challenges her critics head on, and leaves a lasting impression. If I could get more of my clients to use memorable quotes, anecdotes, and sayings that would make them memorable, they would be quoted more often. Too bad we can’t see Russia from Silicon Valley.

    Love her or hate her, you have to admire Sarah Palin’s ability to effectively promote her own brand. She knows how to get the attention she wants and how to stay on message. I wonder who is brave enough to do her media training?

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  • 24Oct

    imageI have just just completed my annual media list service evaluation, weighing the pros and cons of services such as Vocus and MyMediaInfo against my clients’ needs and my operating budget. Finding the right tools, both free and paid, to support client work is an ongoing challenge. I recently had a client ask me about one of the dozens of press release aggregation services that spam me every day and I had to do some digging to determine if it had any real value (it didn’t).

    So how do you find your way through the jungle of competing PR support services? To date, I have relied heavily on my LinkedIn groups and professional contacts to provide guidance, but when I am looking for a new services, such as the best service to research speaking opportunities, I have had to rely heavily on web search. But now there is a new service that has just been launched to help PR professionals find the tools they need – The PR Service Bureau, aka JungleBuzz!

    [Full disclosure – JungleBuzz is the brainchild of Gina Milani, a former co-worker and long-time associate and friend. She and I have discussed the need for this kind of service off and on for some time and I am delighted to see she finally launched it because I am certain that the market will benefit.]

    JungleBuzz was designed for PR consultants by a PR consultant as a single source to help you find the tools you need for success. (Although it offers lots of benefits for larger PR firms as well):

    “JungleBuzz is a communications ‘Tools of the Trade’ repository of traditional and social media tools designed for, or used widely by PR and communications professionals charged with influencing and monitoring public perception. With over 260 tools in 24 categories, it’s the first effort to identify and ‘corral’ the tools that are out in the PR jungle that can assist communications professionals.”

    JungleBuzz gives you a market overview and lets you compare the latest tools available for your needs, including:

    • Media list development
    • Editorial calendar tracking
    • Awards and speaking opportunities
    • Clip services and media coverage
    • Video clipping and streaming media resources
    • Market research resources
    • Blog and social media tracking
    • And a variety of other tools

    I signed on to JungleBuzz this week and have already found that it has saved a lot of time and trouble in researching essential PR resources. Check it out and see if it can help you expand your public relations services.

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  • 20Aug

    image

    An important part of media relations that many agencies and PR professionals tend to overlook is industry analyst relations. From my earliest days working in high-tech public relations, I have worked with the industry analysts at Gartner, IDC, Forrester Research, Yankee Group, and even those big firms that are no longer with us, like Dataquest, Meta Group, and Jupiter Research. And I work with a variety of specialty firms like Nemertes Research, Osterman Research, and MobileTrax.

    I advise my clients that industry analysts are an invaluable media resource for a number of reasons:

    First, of course, they write reports about emerging technology, and there are a number of IT managers and CIOs who won’t make a buying decision without first referencing a Gartner Magic Quadrant or a Forrester Wave report.

    Second, analysts are great resources of industry insight, and they aren’t shy about poking holes in your product or your go-to-market strategy. I find that too often clients become so immersed in a new product or concept that they can’t see the flaws, and analyst briefings often can point out a lot of challenges before you go public with a story.

    And third, analysts are invaluable when it comes to talking to reporters. Enthusiastic start-ups and product managers have been known to be, shall we say, premature in announcing a product that may not be quite ready for market. Over the years reporters have become wary of “vaporware.” Analyst and customer references have become essential for any new technology product launch, and by briefing analysts in advance, we can offer reporters references who can give an unbiased opinion about my client’s product and its impact on the market.

    image

    I want to thank Gerry Purdy, principal analyst at MobileTrax, for offering a simple, and cogent explanation of what he calls the Press-Analyst Cycle (see Gerry’s diagram above), which was the topic of this week’s Inside Mobile newsletter, and Gerry’s blog. Gerry has done a terrific job of explaining how the analyst briefing process works, and how it fits in his world from the analyst’s perspective.

    I have worked with Gerry for a number of years, and whenever I have a client with a new product in the mobile telecommunications market, Gerry is at the top of my analyst contact list. He is always open and frank with my clients – which is important, especially if there are flaws in a product or go-to-market strategy – and I know I can always count on Gerry’s cooperation in the Press-Analyst Cycle, and to be a fair and well-informed editorial reference. As Gerry explains:

    Vendors have to live with the results of the writings of the press and analysts like me.  Often, positive stories greatly influence the decision to buy that product or service.  A number of bad reviews or stories can also hurt.  However, with the Press-Analyst Cycle, vendors are most often able to maximize the awareness and build credibility for their mobile and wireless product or service. 

    And the great thing about working with analysts is they are usually happy to serve as references, even if your client is not one of their clients. After all, analysts have to build their own market credibility and promote their own personal brand, and being asked to comment as an independent expert is a great way to keep your name in front of the market.

    So the next time you see an interesting story about a new product or technology, or you see a quote from an IDC or Forrester Research expert, think of the process behind that story to deliver that opinion. It’s all part of media relations.

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