The Best Interview Tactics are Stop, Look, Listen

04_24_09_stop_light1Listening is an underrated skill, and one I wish that my C-level clients would take more seriously. I recently completed a series of media interviews with a new client and, as with most clients I have worked with over the last 20 years, these executives are too busy trying to cram information down a reporter’s throat to stop, listen, engage, and learn more about what they are interested in.

Of course, you are trying to get the point across for a new services or product and make sure the reporter knows why it’s valuable. You want to deliver your three key message points. But the objective is not to deliver death by PowerPoint. It’s to create a connection with the reporter so you make an ally, not just deliver message points. Which is why I want to share a recent blog post from my client, NETSHARE, on listening strategies. The NETSHARE blog is talking about harnessing listening skills for a job interview, but the same skills apply for press interviews as well. If you listen closely, you are in control of the interview. Here are the highlights:

  1. Commit to improving your listening skills. You need to learn to listen, so it takes practice.
  2. Stop pitching and start listening. Every executive in an interview is selling a story about his company and its products. Try listening instead of pitching. Let reporters ask questions and dig for insights and address the questions, not your key messages.
  3. Give the reporter your undivided attention. Whether you are in an interview or talking to a friend, they deserve your undivided attention. So take them off the speaker phone, put away the computer, and shut off outside distractions.
  4. Be objective. Don’t be quick to challenge or share your own ideas. Listen to the reporter and offer a well-reasoned response.
  5. Apply empathy. Try to see the other party’s point of view. Put yourself in their shoes and try to find common ground.
  6. Be respectful. Wait for the other party to stop talking before offering a counterpoint. Also remember that if you are formulating your response while the other party is speaking, you are not listening.
  7. Paraphrase what has just been said to make sure you have heard correctly.
  8. Notes are valuable. They can help you reinforce and remember salient points.
  9. When you are being interviewed, look at how the other party poses the questions. Are they loud? Do they talk fast? What words do they use? If you can tun3e in to tone and body language you can determine mood and feeling, which can help you take control of the interview.
  10. Look at body language. Are there non-verbal signs that tell you what the interviewer is thinking? See if they make eye contact. Do they turn away from you? Are they avoiding direct interaction? If so, then you have a hostile interviewer.  But if they are direct and look you in the eye, they are ready to engage and more amenable.

To take charge of an interview you need to take the time to listen and engage with the reporter. Don’t be so quick to promote your own story. Listen to what the reporter needs and help him build his story. You will get more from the interview that way, and so will the reporter.

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Analyst Relations: Dating the 800-pound Gorilla

800 pound gorillaIndustry analysts play a unique role in media relations, especially in high-tech PR. You always want to brief analysts before you make a major product launch to get their take on your new technology, and ideally their buy-in so you can ask them to serve as an independent, unbiased reference for editors and sometimes prospects. Of course, not all industry research is created equal, and some has more value than others. My clients tend to watch their rankings in Gartner Magic Quadrant and Forrester Wave reports quite closely, because those rankings do translate into sales.

However, analysts are fallible. Even with the best market data and research their reports are still subjective, which is why I found the recent news that ZL Technologies is suing Gartner Group for $132 million in lost sales astounding:

“ZL alleges at great length in its Complaint (and recapitulates in its Opposition) that it has a strong product and satisfied customers. The Magic Quadrant reports do not say otherwise; the real point of contention here is not the quality of ZL’s product, but instead the subjective analytical model Gartner used to assess ZL’s market position and prospects. ZL does not contest Gartner’s basic assessments of ZL—that it has a good product but needs to expand its sales and marketing—but ZL challenges its placement on the Magic Quadrant Report because Gartner uses a “misguided analytical model” that gives “undue weight to sales and marketing.””

Does Gartner really have that much market power? Over the last decade, I have watched Gartner gobble up Meta Group, Dataquest, and a host of other analyst firms like Pacman, so at the end of the day they are the biggest market force in the room, but does that really mean their analyses are more accurate? According to the filing by ZL Technologies, the Gartner Magic Quadrant holds the power of life and death for their sales. Although I see analysts having an influence on the market, I can’t see their reports having a stranglehold. Surely, having a better solution, better support, and a strong sales team make up the difference for an inaccurate research ranking.

David Ferris of Ferris Research has a good take on the issue. As he states,

  • Any analyst firm is simply expressing an educated opinion.
  • No one firm knows the future, but can only predict based on past data.
  • The connection between analyst dollars spent and report results should be minimal, or non-existent. Paying for research should not give you special privileges.
  • Customers should consider the value of the product, not analyst rankings, hen making a buying decision.
  • Bigger is not necessarily better in the analyst world. Any research report is only as good as the analysts who are gathering and reporting the data.

With great power comes great responsibility. Gartner has achieved great power, largely through acquisition, but that doesn’t mean they hold all the wisdom. In many ways, this lawsuit gives Gartner too much credit, too much power by claiming the Gartner Magic Quadrant has the ability to make or break a sale or a market. Analyst research can be valuable, but when you make it your sole raison d’être for closing or losing new business, you’ve missed the point.

Who knows how the ZL Technologies lawsuit will turn out. But in my experience, when tech companies call out the lawyers to solve their marketing problems, there are bigger internal problems that are affecting their chances for success.

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No Matter What Story You Have to Tell, It’s About People

Good storytelling requires empathy - being able to walk a mile in her shoes
Good storytelling requires empathy - being able to walk a mile in her shoes

From the earliest days in my professional career as a trade journalist through my years in public relations and marketing, I have learned that the crux of good communication is building empathy through good storytelling. You need to develop a connection with your audience and understand what they will be interested in – what they need to know. You need to have empathy, project yourself into the situation of your reader. In short, you have to understand what it feels like to walk a mile in their shoes.

This is why good PR is about good storytelling. You are talking to people about issues that concern people. Whether you are talking about the economy or the latest computer product, it all ties back to how it affects people.

I have been doing a lot of press briefings lately with senior executives who seem to have trouble making that empathetic connection with their audience. They are so busy trying to hammer their message home and justify features, benefits, and ROI that they forget they are talking to people. They forget that the reporter has to come away with something to report, which means the executive interviewee should be making an empathetic connection on two levels; a) understanding the writer’s audience and what they need to know, and b) understanding the reporter’s needs and what it takes for him to write an interesting story.

So I want to share an excerpt from a presentation by Robert Deigh, author of “How Come No One Knows About Us? The Ultimate Public Relations Guide: Tactics Anyone Can Use to Win High Visibility.” If you can make the personal connection by telling a compelling story that is about people, and you will have delivered your message. How do you build empathy with your audience? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.

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Why Are Marketers Ignoring Social Feedback?

Marketers are stumbling blindly when social media can give them direction.
Marketers are stumbling blindly when social media can give them direction.

We all know the potential social networking offers to connect with customers and prospects. Social networks offer an unprecedented ability to connect with people you care about in a way that is meaningful and insightful. Yet a recent study by PRWeek and communications agency MS&L shows that most marketers are ignoring their followers:

  • Almost 70 percent of marketers say they never made a change to a product or a marketing campaign based on consumer feedback from social media sites.
  • Another 43 percent say that a lack of knowledge and expertise prevents them from using social media as part of their marketing programs.
  • And 39 percent say they are not convinced of the value or ROI from social networking.

By way of counterpoint, let me share the following from the first chapter of Paul Gillin’s book, Secrets of Social Media Marketing:

“Social media challenges nearly every assumption about how businesses should communicate with their constituencies. The most important change to understand and to accept is that one of those constituencies now have the capacity to talk – to each other and to the businesses they have to patronize. In the past, those conversations were limited to groups of at most a few hundred people. Today, they are global and may include millions of voices.”

The social media revolution will change marketing, whether marketers choose to embrace it or not. The real challenge is that most marketers aren’t used to embracing dialogue. They would rather show how good they are as marketers by telling you what people want. Think of the cast of Mad Men sitting around brainstorming the latest advertising campaign. Or I can recall any one of countless PR strategy meetings where the PR team and the client sit around and imagine what will appeal to their target audience.

Why not just ask them? Social media lets you do that.

Some marketers seem to feel there is too much risk in embracing social media. The risk is they will be rejected, that their customers will tell them they are wrong. Isn’t that the point?

As Einstein once said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” Social media is a new concept that requires all of us to abandon old thinking. Embrace the new. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

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The Skeleton of a Crisis Communications Plan

It pays to be ready with a crisis communications planI wanted to expand on a recent blog post about creating a crisis communications plan. There are many details you have to worry about when building out an effective crisis plan, but the framework for an effective crisis communications blueprint is the same, no matter what your market. Here are some of the basics you should keep in mind:

  1. Understand how to define a crisis. A communications crisis is any event that could adversely affect your organization’s reputation, integrity, brand, and ultimately your business. Remember that to be considered a crisis, there has to be a victim; someone who is directly affected and harmed, whether that person is a customer, employee, stockholder, or some other entity such as a special interest group, the community or the environment.
  2. Know the common elements of a crisis. Every crisis is a surprise. If you can see the train wreck coming then you should be able to prepare and control the message, so there is no crisis. There also needs to be an imminent threat; an element of danger or risk to employees, customers, the environment, somebody. And there needs to be a need for a short response time.
  3. Set goals to handle the crisis in advance. Of course, our primary goal is to protect the reputation of the organization. Beyond that you need to assess additional goals, whether it is to protect employees and their families, serve the needs of the public, protect key stakeholders, or some combination of multiple goals. You need to be clear about your objectives before you can formulate an effective game plan.
  4. Form a crisis team. Have your crisis management team (not necessarily your spokespersons) tapped in advance and create a master call sheet and a plan to make sure you can rally the troops quickly.
  5. Prepare your spokespersons. Once you have your goals and your messaging, you can prepare your spokespersons. Effective preparation extends beyond the immediate crisis. Most companies make sure their corporate spokespersons go through intense media training so they know how to deal effectively with the press in the event of a crisis. Practice promotes perfection and it keeps your team cool and controlled under pressure.
  6. Have background material ready. Make sure your fact sheets and executive biographies are up to date, and you have information you can hand out to the press to help them get their facts straight.
  7. Manage the crisis. This includes managing uncertainty first through quick and definitive outreach to all the parties affected, including the press. Then you can respond and resolve the situation, including setting compensation and memorializing the event so the victims can feel they have been honored and their needs met.
  8. Close the books. During the crisis you should maintain a communications log of all calls and e-mail communications with reporters. When the smoke clears, go back and make sure you have successfully closed each open issue in the log. Also be sure to perform a post-crisis analysis – Why did the crisis occur? Could it have been prevented? Was it handled properly? How did the spokespersons do? What would you do differently next time? Take this information and refine your plan to prepare for the next crisis.

These are just some of the myriad of things to consider when developing your crisis communications strategy. And there’s lots of great material available online to help you refine your crisis plan. One of the most useful I found was a written by Sandra K Lawson Freeo at The PRSA and other groups have additional ideas. We’ll be fleshing out components of the crisis communications plan in future posts but in the meantime, be prepared!

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Crisis Communications Means Hope for the Best but Prepare for the Worst

I have been working on a project lately for a financial services client; a crisis communications plan designed to help them deal with a variety of public problems. We developed scenarios to cover financial meltdown, executive malfeasance, data loss or theft, robbery, fire, flood, pestilence, and a plague of locusts. The client was pleased – “Very thorough” was the response – but in the process of developing the crisis plan I recalled a number of points I had forgotten about crisis management.

The first revelation was that in order for there to be a crisis, you have to have a victim. This seems obvious, but I have known a number of chief executives who look at an internal product failure or a bad fiscal quarter and decide it’s a crisis that needs addressing. Unless the public, or employees, or stockholders are going to be affected (and usually in a dramatic way), there is no crisis.

I also discovered that NOT having a crisis communications plan in place can be expensive. You can’t just think in terms of losses in revenue, reputation, or brand equity. The premiums for E&O insurance are higher if you don’t have a crisis plan waiting in the wings. After all, statistics show that every organization will encounter a public crisis sometime in the next five years.

It’s also crucial that you not only identify corporate spokespersons in advance, you need to train them! CEOs think that talking to the press is the same as schmoozing a venture capitalist or addressing the board of directors. They are wrong! Crisis communications requires a level of understand and finesse that is unlike any other type of PR. If you have doubts, go to YouTube and look up any CEO dealing with a company crisis. If they have prepared, it shows.

What’s wrong with this picture? Would you trust this man with your crisis message?

The real trick in crisis communications is being responsible and admitting there is a problem without pointing fingers or assigning culpability. This is a fine line that can be very hard to walk. If you speak frankly and address concerns quickly about what you know, and stay within your area of responsibility, you can avoid laying blame or making statements that you will have to recant later.

Above all, crisis communications calls for authenticity It’s not just about saving the company’s reputation or shoring up stock price. It’s about being a stand-up corporate citizen that cares about customers, employees, or the planet – whoever has been affected by the company’s error.

So if you haven’t revisited your crisis strategy lately, it’s time. Make sure you have assigned your crisis team, refreshed your contact list, and trained your spokespersons. There’s nothing worse than getting caught unprepared. And when you are caught unwares, repairing the damage to your reputation and your brand, and rebuilding your sales could take more time than you can afford to invest.

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