A Lesson in Bad Crisis Communications: GoDaddy CEO’s Reputation Is Trampled by an Elephant

Undoubtedly you have already heard about the major major macho faux pas committed by GoDaddy CEO Bob Parsons. He posted an online video profiling his exploits killing an African elephant. The video went viral and has shone a negative spotlight on Parsons, and by association GoDaddy. PETA and other animal lovers are outraged, and there has been a huge backlash. Social media guru Peter Shankman put a call out to his social media following (which is sizable) to switch domain providers. Even Hollywood stalwart Cloris Leachman launched a Twitter campaign to hit Parsons where it hurts – in the pocketbook – by directing followers to rival Network Solutions.

In response to his critics, Parsons remains adamant that his actions were innocent and even altruistic. It’s not that he was hunting elephants. He was helping the natives by taking down rogue wildlife that was ruining the crops of the locals and promoting starvation. This from a recent post on Entrepreneur.com:

“Parsons, 60, told CBS News he believed people’s "hearts were in the right place" in criticizing him, but they misunderstood his intention, which was to help starving people and stop elephants from destroying crops in Africa.

“Several comments posted to the video questioned why the cameras zoomed in on villagers wearing orange Go Daddy hats. But the video wasn’t part of a company marketing initiative, a company spokeswoman says, adding that it was "something Bob, the individual, edited and posted." After complaints, the close-ups of the Go Daddy hats and still photos of Parsons posing with the dead elephant were removed.”

Sound a little disingenuous to you?

Parsons violated one of the first laws of crisis communications – show empathy. He completely missed the boat in empathizing with his critics. And he missed a golden opportunity to take the high road, admit that he may have been wrong, and find ways to make this right which would create a whole new cadre of loyal customers. Instead, he became defensive, evasive, and pointed to his critics saying that he was misunderstood.

In fact, Parsons created this crisis by being stupid, then tried to cover his error by being arrogant. He created the crisis and then violated a number of the basic rules of crisis communications:

1. Apply conclusive action: Be decisive and affirmative and move quickly to head off collateral damage. Instead, Parsons entered into a Twitter war that fueled the flamers rather than calming things down.

2. Bring unassailable behavior: In a crisis, the element of surprise often catches executives off-guard, which leads to foolish behavior and mistakes. Parsons didn’t take a beat and assess his situation to make himself unassailable. Instead he attacked his critics, which reinforced his wrongdoing. He didn’t accept responsibility for a mistake in judgment.

3. Use humane words and be empathetic: He totally missed the target here by being an apologist rather than empathetic. He is so busy defending himself that he continues to alienate his customers and potential customers by not acknowledging their position. By standing his ground his is alienating himself from his audience.

I couldn’t help but recall the old Grouch Marx joke, “One morning I shot an elephant in my Pajamas and how he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.” In this case, Parson and his crisis communications team seem to have been caught napping, and as a result, it looks like the emperor has no clothes.

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The Challenges of Peanut-Butter Consulting

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Forrest Gump believes that life is like a box of chocolates, and I see consulting as like a jar of peanut butter. Some people like their smooth and some like it chunky (my preference) but the challenge is not to spread yourself too thin.

Consultants face an ongoing challenge in terms of work balance. You should be spending about 20 percent of your time on new business development, and the other 80 percent of the time on keeping your current clients happy. But when that 20 percent of effort yields multiple projects simultaneously, then you need to be prepared to step up and deliver advice and services that have value; deliver the chunky stuff so you don’t have to spread the creamy peanut butter too thin.

Granted, having more work than you can handle is a good problem to have, sort of, but it can backfire if you don’t manage the work appropriately. If you overpromise and under deliver, it will affect your professional reputation, and probably cost you a lot of current business. If you overcommit and then work yourself too hard to get the job done, which leads to second-rate service and ultimately burnout.

So how do you spread yourself appropriately to make sure you are optimizing both time and money? Here are a few strategies I have used in the past:

Set up a monthly work calendar. I recommend to all my clients to establish a “scope of work” for each month, outlining objectives and tasks to be completed. As part of this exercise, you should establish your own time estimates to assess how much time you need to allocate. Granted, priorities will change during the course of the month, which means as you add new tasks you take other tasks off the agenda. This exercise is not only about creating a roadmap for yourself as to what you can reasonably achieve during the month, but it’s also about setting expectations for the client.

Touch every client every day. It’s so easy to focus on projects that are interesting or that have seemingly more urgent deadlines. Therein lies a common consulting trap – oiling the squeaky wheel. If you only pay attention to the clients and projects that are demanding your attention, those other tasks that support the less demanding clients will fall by the wayside. If you touch every client every day with some communication, task, or even checking in on work in process, you can stay on top of your client work.

Keep track of your efforts. I like to bill on a retainer since this makes budgeting simpler for the clients and eliminates billing surprises. That doesn’t mean you don’t keep track of your work. I keep timesheets for all my clients, retained or not, to determine whether my time budgeting is on target and to determine if one client is demanding too much of my time. If you keep track of where your time goes, it is easier to identify where the problems are emerging in time management so you can either reset expectations or realign your hours.

Get help when you need it. When the floodgates open and new business comes pouring in, I know many consultants turn away business based on their availability. A better strategy is to take on the projects and enlist partners to help. I have operated a “virtual” agency model for years and for larger projects can bring in one of my peers to help with the day-to-day tasks. You can scale if you have help and assume a project management role, assuming you can continue to maintain the quality of the work.

Know when to say no. There are times when a giant project might land in your lap that is tempting and lucrative. You need to ask yourself a few leading questions before you accept the contract. Will it jeopardize your other work? Will you be able to continue to build your business while you handle this mongo project? What about when the project is completed; will you still have enough work? I find that putting all your eggs in a single client basket can be fraught with risk.

Get rid of the dead wood. If you have new work coming in the front door, consider kicking the dead wood out the back door. There are always some clients that you will never satisfy or that aren’t a good fit. Either your work styles don’t align, expectations aren’t set properly, or you just don’t have the right tools to deliver what they need. If, like a bad job, the client isn’t a good fit or they are too demanding, taking on new business gives you an opportunity to clean house.

Follow the money. As part of your housekeeping, take a look at some of your less lucrative clients and determine if new business opportunities give you a chance to renegotiate or change the terms of your contract. Even fun contracts can prove to be a loss leader in terms of time and energy. New, more lucrative contracts will give you a chance to change or end a less profitable client relationship without risk.

Successful consulting is a a continuous balancing act. Knowing when to streamline your operation and how to balance dueling priorities is the key to consulting success. So keep it crunchy and don’t spread yourself too thin.

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Beware the Sales Rep in Journalist’s Clothing

wolf-in-sheeps-clothing-2There is an evil walking among us. An unseen danger that can creep up on the unwary and seduce them with promises of fame and glory. They are unscrupulous media outlets that sell editorial space but refuse to call it advertising. These are the con men who have perfected the three-card monty of advertorial, the bait and switch that can cost your client a lot of money if you are not wary.

I seem to be running into more of these kinds of “media” outlets of late. They have caused me professional embarrassment, since they often don’t get to the sales pitch until after after they have the interview in the can and are ready to go, assuming you are willing to pay for the privilege. I recall recently being approach by a Midwest business publication (no names, please), offering to do a profile of my contractor client as part of a “special edition” on construction trends. I checked them out to the best of my ability and they were listed in my editorial database, and their web site looked legit. Once we completed the interview and they were ready to write the article, they sunk the hook: “Oh, to get this story into print we will need some advertising backing. Can you share the contacts at six of your vendors whom we can then contact to advertise with this story?” The story never ran, the client now asks me in advance if we have to pay for the next interview I just scheduled, and I have added that publication to my editorial black list.

This morning I received a call from another organization that I have heard from many times before. They are based in Florida and use the wire services for business prospecting. So the pitch usually goes like this:

“Hi, my name is Shyster Fagan and I represent Bait and Switch Broadcasting. We have a national radio/television/Web show hosted by [insert celebrity name here] and we think your client would be a perfect candidate. We reach 200,000 business professionals and…”

It’s a great pitch designed to get you really excited. And when you get to the end of the spiel you are ready to schedule an interview for your client, thinking you will look like a hero. Then, when you dig deeper, you realize that it’s a small syndicated Web program or, worse, a feed on one of the airlines’ audio channels, and the price tag is only $10,000 or more.

I have been in publishing all my life. My mother was a magazine editor, my dad used to sell advertising, and I was a journalist before going into PR and marketing. One of the lessons drummed into me at an early age was the cardinal rule of separation of advertising and editorial. If you can buy editorial space, then the publication’s editorial credibility was nil. I have seen (and even worked for) a few trade publications who have found creative ways to blur the rules; to give advertisers preferential editorial treatment. Those in the know would get the “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” and know that they could get a little extra press exposure if you sign that next insertion contract. However, the reputable magazines were never (okay, seldom) influenced by the ad buy.

Today, however, with the explosion of the web and new editorial formats and content delivery models, the rules have changed, or have they? I have clients quizzing me about blog coverage, and our challenge becomes finding bloggers who use good journalistic approaches and follow the rules. The same is true for magazines and e-zines. If you can buy influence, it’s not worth the price of admission. What irks me is that these con artists hide the fees and drop the boom once they set the hook. Just be honest and admit up front that it’s pay to play. Don’t try to pretend you have editorial credentials that you don’t.

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Counting Your Contracts Before They Are Signed

badhireFor those of you are consultants or sole practitioners, you understand the need to balance your workload in order to provide superior customer service without stretching yourself too thin. I have run a “virtual agency” for a number of years – that means I have a database of contacts whom I can call on in a pinch to help with a last-minute client request or a new contract. The advantage of the virtual agency model is that you can scale your operation without maintaining unnecessary staff or overhead. And the clients still get your expertise instead of a handoff to a junior person; a failing I have identified with most large agencies who use the “bait and switch,” bringing in the senior team to close the contract and then the client never sees them again. Of course the challenge of consulting, or any business, is that you have to plan your workload to make best use of available resources.

That’s why I was frustrated this week by a flurry of new business activity that failed to pan out. I think it was a combination of miscommunication and expectations on both side. At the start of the week I had three new contracts pending; verbal agreements with commitments like “we are ready to go and need you now!” By the end of the week two of the three contracts faded away, despite the verbal commitments and the signing of NDAs. It seems the prospects’ priorities and budgets changed. I guess a handshake on a deal isn’t worth what it used to be.

My dilemma, or course, is that I had to find the resources to support the new work, which as a good consultant I did before committing to the contracts. Now I have the resources lined up and no work. It would be a bigger problem if I had staff waiting idle in the wings rather than other consultants awaiting instructions. But I still find it irksome that experienced executives from profitable companies can’t manage their operations more effectively. It’s not as though they are asking for a quote on a car or an estimate on a construction job – not once they have looked you in the eye and said “you’re hired.” If you have already written the proposal, given your best advice up front, and received a commitment from the prospect, there should be no question about moving forward.

Consultants aren’t protected by the same labor laws as employees, and there is always an element of risk with being self-employed. I have been stiffed by a client or two in the past 20 years, and often have had to renegotiate contracts to accommodate changing client needs and budgets. It’s never pleasant, but it’s a necessary part of consulting.

What can you do to protect yourself? Here are some thoughts based on my experience:

1. Discount for cash up front. If you need to close a deal, cash is king. I usually ask for a retainer when I take on a new client. If they are willing to put their cash down up front, then I know they are serious. And if they are willing to show me the money, then I am usually willing to give them a break and show them the discount. It’s a good way to set the ground rules and cement the relationship.

2. It’s all about expectation setting. You need to make sure the client knows what they are buying, which is not as obvious as it sounds. Provide a list of deliverables and, if you can, a timeline for delivery. Your best bet is to take the guesswork our of the contract, and they will commit.

3. “Pay me for process, pay me for results.” This is an adage that was passed on to me by one of my first clients, and I continue to live by it. You can pay me for process, like keeping timesheets and activity reports, or you can pay me to deliver the goods. If I can focus on the objective, you get more value in the end. Keep your eye on the prize and don’t let process get in the way.

4. Set your terms up front. I always give my clients an escape clause. Most agencies I have worked with use 30-day termination clauses in their contracts, and I find that makes the uninitiated nervous. Be willing to compromise. Offer 10-day or 15-day out so they don’t feel trapped.

5. Know when to dump a bad client. The difference between hiring staff and hiring a consultant is like the difference between marriage and dating. If you hire staff to deal with your problem, it’s a much bigger commitment, since most staffers cost 150% percent of their salary when you add in benefits and overhead. By comparison, consultants are a cheap date, and if it’s a bad date, know enough to walk away. If you aren’t getting what you need or there is something that doesn’t feel right, it’s better to cut and run than hope it’s going to get better.

6. Stand up for yourself. Okay, consultants are easy targets. They are sole practitioners; hired guns with only expertise to sell. So when a client decides to stiff you and complains you didn’t deliver, it’s time to look inside and ask yourself, “is this a valid complaint, or are you getting stiffed?” Consultants seem to be fair game for unscrupulous companies who just don’t want to pay. You don’t have to take it. There are law firms our there that will work for you on contingency. I recall a client many years ago who claimed they were underserviced and wouldn’t pay. I had nothing to lose so I found a lawyer to sue them (out of state) and since my complaint held up an IPO, they paid at least two-thirds of what they owed, which was better than nothing. The bottom line was they expected me, as a consultant, to give up and go away. Don’t.

It would be nice to think that all clients are willing to honor their obligations on a handshake. They often don’t. So learn to protect yourself with solid contracts and well-defined deliverables and business practices that put you in control. Just because you choose to maintain a small business doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be mighty.

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Understanding the Value of the Newswire

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When I start working with new clients, I inevitably have to talk to them about newswire services. If the company is larger or publicly traded, then the need for using one of the big three wire services – BusinessWire, PR Newswire, or MarketWire – isn’t a problem. They know that the wire helps address issues such as disclosure for publicly traded companies, and they usually have wire distribution built into the PR budget. However, when dealing with PR newbies and smaller start-ups who are worried about conserving their budget, how do you justify the added cost of hundreds or even thousands of dollars for wire distribution for a press release?

imageI actually went through this exercise for two clients this month. I researched publications in different distribution circuits, performed a cost analysis, and developed a comparison of the big three services. My basic argument to justify the cost: wire distribution gives you access to news outlets you would be hard-pressed to reach through other channels, and the benefits in terms of Web exposure are unparalleled.

I posed this question to my peers on LinkedIn – “How do you explain to your clients why a newswire is valuable for their press release?” I was gratified that the responses echoed my own thinking:

  • Wire distribution reaches media that probably isn’t in your core media list, such as broadcast, TV, or trade media, oimager niche sites that don’t have the editorial staff to dig out fresh news.
  • Mainstream news media, such as Bloomberg, CNBC, CNN,and ABC, all have wire feeds and that gives your news a big credibility boost.
  • The SEO benefit is huge. Wire releases are picked up by Yahoo Finance, Google News, and other news search engines. Traditionally, news releases also appear higher in search rankings and if you have optimized your press release properly (which basically means you have written a clean press release with all the appropriate keywords in strategic places) it should improve your search rankings.
  • And the newswires should feed your social media program. All the wire news is online and you should be using those links to feed your blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

Most of my clients are serving niche markets, so I seldom recommend national distribution. You can choose a local circuit for $200 to $400 and get the same benefits of SEO and online exposure, as well as distribution to target vertical trade circuits, which is where I think you get real wire benefits. There is something about seeing a press release distributed via a reputable newswire service that lends credibility to your news announcement. It shows that you are serious about sharing your news with the world and are willing to invest in established news channels to do so.

For smaller and pro bono clients working with little or no PR budget, I have forgone the paid wire services and used the free newswires, which is really more of a shotgun approach. The free news services give you some help with SEO, but you really get what you pay for and the free services don’t carry the same credibility.

All that said, there is no substitute for direct press pitching. If you have real news worth sharing then you need to get it in the hands of your target reporters before you hit the wire. For many editors, in the age of the Web by the time news hits the wire it’s old news, so you should be proactive and share with your contacts before your wire release. They will appreciate the heads up.

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Hiding Behind the Anonymity of the Web

My recent blog post about marketing professional who have lost the art of picking up the phone resonated with a lot of my peers on LinkedIn. A number of seasoned PR pros noted that the younger professionals seem to suffer from “phone fright,” and that Generation Y would rather send e-mail or text than pick up a phone. However, I think the anonymity of the web points to a larger issue.

I recently spotted a column on CNN written by sports writer Jeff Pearlman about his encounter with an online hater and how he tracked him down. Although the Internet detective story isn’t quite as exciting as The Cuckoo’s Egg, the confession of the online hater is revealing. After tracking him down, his online hate-monger confessed:

“You know what’s funny?” Andy says. “I enjoy your writing. But I disagreed with you [about Bagwell] and I got caught up in the moment. When you read something you think is bull—-, you’re gonna respond passionately. Was I appropriate? No. Am I proud? Not even a little. It’s embarrassing. But the internet got the best of me.”

Andy pauses. It’s an awkward few seconds. He is not happy I called, and later pleads, “Please don’t eviscerate me.” But, to his credit, he takes responsibility, and says this is something he needs to work on.

“All I can say is, I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m truly sorry.

So let’s consider how the anonymity of the web plays out in professional communications. It allows the upcoming generation of PR professionals to hide behind email or social media. As one of my PR peers noted, it’s one thing to acquire an email address from a database and throw a message into cyberspace in hopes of a reply. It’s another thing to actually network to make a connection so you can collect a mobile phone number or a Facebook invitation and then say, “Hey, I have a story idea for you.”

And the anonymity of email goes the other way as well. Sending an email pitch to a reporter makes it easy to ignore. You can craft the perfect story, be right on message, with supporting facts and a unique angle and, because it came in via email, it’s easy to ignore or file for later. If you get as much email as I do, it’s hard to sift the nuggets from the avalanche of spam so it’s no wonder that email pitches don’t get the attention they may or may not deserve.

Another of my colleagues commenting on the LinkedIn thread noted that he has talked to a number of reporters who admitted reading the email but they needed a personal call to cement the pitch. People want personal contact, and the ability to hide behind an email, or even a Twitter or Facebook update, undermines that contact. Not that social networking isn’t valuable, but it can’t replace the exchange of ideas promoted by a telephone call or a meeting.

Making a connection via LinkedIn or Facebook might make the connection more personal, but it’s still too easy to ignore. You need to reach out and make a personal contact via phone to cement a relationship. Once you’ve made contact you can have a meaningful dialogue that will yield real benefits.

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Name Your Price (And Stick To It)

I just finished writing a new business proposal and, as always, I ran up against what seems to be the age-old question for consultants – what do I charge? I have experimented with different pricing models over the years – hourly rate, retainer, by the project. I have even developed a rate card that I use with prospects for project work, but inevitably, to be competitive, you have to haggle. There are many times I think I should hire an Arabian rug merchant and learn the gentle art of haggling for a better price.

What continues to amaze me is that in public relations and marketing consulting, everyone sees pricing as negotiable. Do you question the fees of your doctor? Or what you pay your plumber? Sure, you have to be prepared to accept a market rate, but in the current economy it’s gotten harder to get a fair wage. I actually challenged my accountant last week when I was quoted a rate for a routine task, and we struck a compromise. But you can’t sell your services on price alone.

Once again, I have Peter Shankman to thank for some great advice about getting paid what you are worth. As Peter notes, when you set your price, remember you can come down but you can’t go up. Also determine what you think your time is worth and calculate accordingly. I know that many consultants don’t necessarily adjust their rate but they miscalculate time, so a project takes twice as long as they anticipate, which means they get paid half their normal rate. And, of course, you have to charge market rate, but you also have to charge what you think your services are worth. If you have a healthy ego, you should be able to name a fair rate and stick with it. If the client doesn’t think your services are worth the rate, then you probably shouldn’t take the contract because they won’t respect the quality of the work if you underprice it.

When working with a new client, you also have to be sure to understand the intangibles that may affect your rate. For some clients, this might be translated as the “hassle factor.” I was revisiting a thread on one of my LinkedIn Groups today where a PR professional was asking how much information to share with a client; should you share contacts, pitches, and enough detail to allow the client to micromanage the process? My response was, “Of course not. The client is paying you for your expertise.” If they want to tell you how to do your job, then the rates should go up. As one of my first clients told me (and I have lived by these words ever since), “You can pay me for process, or you can pay me for results. Process is a lot more expensive.”

And to echo one of Peter’s other points, there are times when working for less pays off. I have a couple of clients that are on a very small retainer, and I know I over service them. More importantly, they know I over service them, which means they never hesitate to offer a referral, send new business my way, or help when I need something. It’s a nice symbiotic relationship that pays off in many ways.

So is there a hard and fast rule about setting fees? I guess the golden rule is never sell yourself short.

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Operator? Get Me Long Distance!

I am a baby boomer, which means I was born long before e-mail, the Internet, and the Web. I was even born before the advent of touch-tone phones and answering machines – when I was a child my parents had a party line. Remember those? For some reason, the telephone has fallen from favor as a business tool. I recently ran across a quote from President Rutherford B. Hayes, who made one of the first telephone calls on from Washington to Philadelphia on Alexander Graham Bell’s new invention. Hayes exclaimed, “An amazing invention, but who would ever want to use one?”

In the age of electronic communications, we have adopted the same philosophy. Why pick up the telephone when you can sit at your computer and compose your thoughts in an e-mail. Or what about the new concept of unified communications? It’s now normal for me to check on Skype or IM to see if a client is available and ask a simple question as a text message rather than sending an e-mail and waiting for a response. With IM I get “presence” which means I can see if the other party is online and then I can ask a question for almost immediate response via chat or, if necessary, escalate the communication to an Internet phone call with the touch of a mouse, then follow-up with an e-mail.

Which leads me back to the telephone. Somewhere along the line, the PR profession has lost the art of the phone call. These days editors, reporters, and PR people hide behind e-mail. We draft compelling “pitches” designed to titillate an editor’s imagination and yield a positive response – “That sounds interesting. I would like to talk to your client.” However, e-mail has also created a communications black hole where all flack spam is relegated. You can draft the most compelling pitch in the world with interesting factoids and an innovative story angle no other publication has ever considered, and if it doesn’t get read it’s all for naught. I know that I must process almost 1,000 e-mail messages daily. When I log in to my mail in the morning I see the messages pile up in different folders and I go through them, determining which are news feeds with interesting tidbits, which are solicitations, which are spam, and which are editor or client requests that need immediate attention. The process is rather fast and indiscriminate and those messages that don’t require immediate attention are often left unread until they are deleted.

And that’s the problem. E-mail is too easy to ignore, and to misread. I don’t know how many times I have received an e-mail from a colleague or client and misread between the lines, injecting mood and meaning that just wasn’t there. And text messaging is worse. If you have teenage children you know they won’t pick up a telephone call but they will (usually) respond to a text, which leads to a different level of miscommunications. For example, I recently had a text exchange with my stepson:

  • Me: “We’re taking mom out for her birthday at 7:45, will you be home?”
  • Him: “Kk”
  • Now the time is 7:30. Me: “Where r u? We will be late”
  • Him: “You said 7:45.” Me: “That’s the time of the dinner reservation. We still need to get to the restaurant.”

You get the idea.

Which is why I think President Hayes was totally wrong. Sometimes, you have to pick up the phone. There is nothing more satisfying to me than getting an editor on the phone, talking to him about his magazine and readers, and then presenting a case for my client. “Where does this story fit in your universe and how can we make it relevant for your needs?” You forge a different kind of connection with a telephone call. You hear a human voice on the other end of the phone and you develop an audio picture of the other party. You exchange ideas – which is really hard to do in e-mail – and you can come to an understanding quickly. When I can actually engage with an editor on the phone, we can quickly determine if the story is interesting, relevant, and what we need to change to make it suitable for his or her readers. It’s a lot more efficient than blind e-mail pitching. Of course, you have to contend with the black hole of voice mail, but then every voice mail gets followed up with an e-mail, right?

There is an immediacy to the telephone that just can’t be denied. You have to use courtesy and common sense – “Hello, I am calling for Acme Company about a new Road Runner capture solution. Do you have a few minutes to talk about how what this might mean for your readers?” You can only forge a real relationship by telephone. Social media is great, and you can talk to your “virtual” editor friends through Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn, but at the end of the day they remember the phone call, the laugh, and the offer to help them with information they can take to print. If you think about “reverse-engineering” this process, if you were an editor, who would you contact first to help you with an editorial problem? The guy who sent you an e-mail or the guy who you talked to on the phone about your story needs, the weather, and who is gonna win the World Series?

Do yourself a favor. Pick up the phone!

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Fear is Good

I made a presentation earlier this week on using social media to build brand awareness and drive sales for the Northern California Business Marketing Association. I don’t do a lot of these and I wasn’t sure what to expect. It could have been a room full of marketing gurus and social media skeptics, ready to challenge my every assumption. Or it could have been a room seeded with know-it-alls ready to countermand my every point.

It turned out that the turnout was small, but very friendly, and we sat around a table over breakfast to review my ideas and discuss how to apply social media in practical situations that related to their business and their clients. Still, the experience of public speaking or performance is always daunting,even to the most seasoned professionals. Which reminded me that fear is good – it helps you dig down and find your best insights and promotes peak performance.

I actually ran across two blog posts this week about fear, which I found serendipitous. Peter Shankman of HARO fame posted a blog entry about “Using Your Fear to Create Awesomeness.” As we all know, fear is a very primitive instinct that kept early man from being devoured by saber-toothed tigers or trampled by mastodons. These days our fears seem much more mundane as we have redefined our fears about survival so we ignore the venomous snakes in the zoos and instead focus on the institutional snakes threatening us with unemployment and bankruptcy. Still, fear is a motivator that can drive excellence.

Peter Shankman may be the poster boy for using fear to drive excellence. Every time I check his blog he seems to be preparing for another ironman competition or getting ready to jump out of an airplane. He understands how to harness adrenaline. He understands that while most of us seek comfort and complacency and try to avoid fear, when it’s properly harnessed, fear gives you an edge.  As the saying goes, pressure makes diamonds.

Carol Tice also was blogging about fear this week. She offered some practical tips on how freelance writers can banish or take control of their fear. Some of her advice is useful to all of us. For example, she notes you need to get perspective and place whatever you are afraid of in a larger context – “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Lighten up, because a lot of fear comes from taking yourself too seriously. Get rid of the negative beliefs and be positive, because you can accomplish tasks that at first seem impossible if you believe.

So standing up and addressing a group about a topic shouldn’t be scary, especially if you are confident about your subject matter. It’s similar to making a pitch to a tough prospective client can be scary; if you believe in yourself and your expertise and have passion then you can easily overcome fear. Use your fear as a barometer to see if you can stretch yourself. If a task or project feels uncomfortable and you fear failure, then break it down into its basic components and understand what you really can accomplish. You’ll drive yourself to achieve so much more.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt so succinctly stated, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

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Would Sarah Palin Be Your Nightmare Public Relations Client?

In my last blog post, I posed the question, “Would Sarah Palin be your dream public relations client?” Based on another blog post by freelance writer Carol Tice, I noted that Palin has a lot of the qualities you would want in a PR client: she loves the publicity, isn’t afraid to speak her mind, she stays on message, and she makes an impression. I posed the same question to some of my PR peers on LinkedIn and got a divergent set of responses. Putting politics aside, I think the vehemence of some of the responses and the wide range of observations and their tone is a testament to the power of the Palin brand. As a number of my fellow PR pros pointed out, “She’s famous for being famous,” but does that mean she would make a good PR client?

There were some interesting observations that I want to share here. The real issue for me is trying to ascertain what goes into a good client? I have a few of my own criteria:

– I always want to work with senior executives; the decision-makers. I find that working with marketing managers, communications directors, and middle managers who have to clear strategy and messaging with the C-level suite makes it really hard to do your job. After all, the news business moves quickly, and if you have to run an interview opportunity or quote through a committee to get approval you’ll never get in the story. It also makes PR counsel more valuable because you can work with C-staff to determine what their market objectives are and how you can help them realize those objectives.

– I also like working with senior executives who believe in what they are selling. My late father was a consummate salesman with very high integrity, and what he taught me was you can’t sell a product you don’t believe in. You can’t fake passion. And if an executive is passionate about his company and his product or services, that comes through in an interview every time.

– I like clients with an ego (or at least a personality). Long ago I adopted an approach that a previous agency employer called “executive as brand.” Let’s face it; companies are boring but people are interesting. So it’s usually up to the CEO to carry the corporate brand. After all, where would Virgin be without Richard Branson, or Apple without Steve Jobs, or Google without Sergey Brin and Larry Page?

– And I like working with clients who have a good story to tell that addresses a real need. After working in high-tech for many years, I have run across a number of “Field of Dreams” clients who believe, “If you build it, they will come.” If you can tell a story about something that solves a real-world problem that people identify with, then you have a winner.

So why would Sarah Palin be your worst nightmare as a PR client? The LinkedIn crew has spoken. Here are some of their observations:

“The job of the PR person would be bag-carrier/firefighter not consultant or advisor.”

“No, just cause I’d be constantly having to put out her PR fires.”

“Why would anyone want a client who just wants to famous? Do you really believe she has any political inclinations? She’s no Kennedy. No social conscious, whatsoever. Besides, how can you take anyone serious who decides to push family onto reality programs? Not worth the effort!”

“Sarah Palin does not appear to be a team player . . . and PR is definitely a team sport. At the end of the day, and despite hard work and strategy, I believe that for the PR professional there would be that lurking dark cloud. You know . . . the one that threatens to force "the team" right back where they started. The thought of it makes me shutter.”

“I think Palin gets media attention, at least 9 times out of 10, for the wrong reasons. It’s almost always a gaffe, followed by back-pedaling and retractions. Not an ideal client at all.”

It would be a fun ride, and a smart PR person would keep very good notes on the entire ordeal and have the book deal – "I Chased Sarah’s Mouth" as the exit strategy. Better than an IRA for retirement.”

What do you think? What characteristics do you want in your ideal client?

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