Ad Agencies: Make Sure Your Clients Are Prepared for the Unexpected

Multiple camerasFrom a political donation scandal involving a top news media personality to a deadly gang   shootout at a restaurant in Waco, Texas, the past few days have been a somber reminder that a crisis can strike at any time.

In what is described as a “nightmare” on the Drudge Report and a “crisis” by the New York Post, ABC News is grappling with revelations that “Good Morning America” and “This Week” anchor George Stephanopoulos failed to reveal to the network and to viewers large contributions he made in 2013 and 2014 to the Clinton Foundation, raising questions about his objectivity and credibility. He has apologized, but the damage is done.

Mr. Stephanopoulos, whose contract with ABC News reportedly is worth $105 million, previously worked in President Clinton’s administration, but then a lot of news commentators have had previous involvement in campaigns and administrations (which is why their insights are valued).

But once employed by a news agency–especially at two such a high-profile positions—he had an ethical responsibility to go beyond what is a matter of public record when it came to disclosing his donations to the Clinton Foundation.

Mr. Stephanopoulos’ objectivity has been questioned before, and now it will really be under fire.

According to a Post article by Emily Smith, one source put it this way: “George is the centerpiece of their 2016 coverage. By donating to the Clintons, he has blown his credibility in one catastrophic move.”

Far from the East Coast another crisis flared in a seemingly unlikely place: The Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, where a brawl broke out among rival biker gangs, leaving nine dead and 18 injured.

According to a Wall Street Journal article, a Twin Peaks spokesman said the company was “revoking the franchise agreement for the Waco location.”

Jay Patel, the local operating partner of the franchise, apparently was being abandoned by Twin Peaks. What he did to get his franchise agreement revoked is not clear. Most likely he’s in a state of shock, which may explain why he reportedly did not respond to “repeated requests for comment.”

What lessons can be learned from these two unfortunate situations?

First, both incidents should have been anticipated. While it’s true that Twin Peaks wouldn’t necessarily foresee a fight of this magnitude breaking out at one of the restaurants, it is not at all unlikely that fights or other disruptive activities could take place. Rather than stand by the Waco franchise owner, and provide support to him and others at the local level, the spokesman basically threw Mr. Patel under the bus in an apparent effort to disassociate the company from this tragedy as quickly as possible. What message does this send to other franchise owners?

As for ABC News, it would have been prudent to ask Mr. Stephanopoulos to disclose potential conflicts, such as political donations, before renewing his contract last year. Then again, maybe the network did ask him that very question and he assured him there were none, in which case ABC News would seem to have a valid reason to break his contract if it so choses.

Second, an effective crisis plan would have helped ABC News and Twin Peaks better navigate through these very difficult situations. An effective crisis plan contemplates the types of crises that could occur, and it helps companies and individuals deal with the unexpected by providing a roadmap of “if this happens, then we say/do this.”

Specific situations and details will vary, but certain core issues that involve ethics, integrity, safety, etc., can be addressed beforehand through the filter of the core values an organization holds. Those values then form the basis for polities, strategies and key messages that are prepared in advance and which can be tailored to a particular crisis. Maybe one or both companies have crisis management plans, but if so they don’t seem to be very effective.

Third, while I doubt that Mr. Stephanopoulos needs media training, it sure would have come in handy for Mr. Patel. As a franchise owner, it’s certainly not improbable that something could happen at his restaurant that would draw media attention. Ignoring inquiries from reporters is just not a good strategy.

One of the most important things an ad agency can do in a crisis situation is to help its client see the reality of the situation and what needs to be done. It’s easy to panic and develop a siege mentality when an organization in crisis is under intense scrutiny from the outside, but that only makes matters worse.

Properly managing the crisis is vital, because facts alone don’t win in the court of public opinion—perceptions do.

Having said all this, I realize it is very easy to play Monday morning quarterback, and it’s likely there are additional facts that are unknown at this time which may be driving how the companies are handling these situations. I’ve also been on the crisis management side, and it can be frustrating and stressful. Having a solid plan in place can be a game changer.

Being prepared by planning for the worst ahead of time and having a crisis communications strategy in place can make a big difference in how a company or client comes across in a crisis—especially in the early stages. And that in turn can affect the organization’s credibility and reputation for month or even years.

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Additional PR Lessons from a Baseball Manager’s Meltdown

Photo of a baseballA lot has already been written about the way Cincinnati Reds Manager Bryan Price recently lost his cool (to put it mildly) in a pre-game conversation with reporters.

Writing in PR Daily, Aaron Endré offered “4 PR lessons from a baseball manager’s meltdown.”

His tips for talking with reporters are summarized as follows:

  1. Speak as if everything you say will be printed.
  2. Clarify which statements are “on the record.”
  3. Agree on when the news can go live.
  4. Keep calm.

I agree with all of them, but in the context of Mr. Price’s incident I’d like to add three more suggestions:

5. Take a deep breath and pause before responding when you’re upset.

Responding in anger is never a good idea. Take a moment to cool down—no matter how provocative a question you may have been asked or how upset you are—and think through a measured, appropriate answer.

The #1 point I stress in my media training seminars is this: When you’ve made your point, stop talking. Why? Because you usually make your best points in the initial response to a question. A skilled reporter may nod as a signal to keep you talking, but it’s prudent to resist the urge to do so or you may end up going down the swamp by saying more than you intended. The more you talk, the greater the opportunity to say something you’ll regret later on. So think before you speak, and when you speak be concise and to the point.

6. Learn and use good manners.

Common courtesy and civility seem to be in increasingly short supply these day. The issue here, for me at least, is not so much that Mr. Price got caught on tape with this profane rant, but that he made the rant in the first place. This guy must have some significant anger issues, but it’s still no excuse to behave like that. Self-control is something we should have learned in elementary school, but it’s better to learn it late than never.

7. Remember that it’s not just about you.

Maybe Mr. Price felt better after verbally attacking the reporter who upset him, but what sort of example did his behavior set for the many kids who have now been exposed to it? Whether they want to be or not, athletes and coaches are role models to score of young people who look up to them and imitate their behavior. What sort of message is he sending to them? Certainly not a very positive one.

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15 Questions Ad Agencies Should Ask Before Engaging PR Services

Conference room photo

For many small- to medium-sized ad agencies, public relations can be a mystery.

Ad agency principals are experts when it comes to strategy, branding, creative and messaging, but dealing with reporters can be intimidating if one doesn’t fully understand how public relations works and the “magic” used to generate publicity and goodwill for clients or an agency.

It’s not unusual for ad agencies or their clients to say they want to use PR because “no one knows us outside out of (city, region, industry).” They want to increase awareness.

If I were to ask why they want to gain awareness, they may very well look at me and say, “Well duh, we want more people to know about us so that we’ll grow and make more money.”

Fair enough. But if I ask how PR is integrated into their new business plan, more likely than not I’ll get blank stares.

Yet increasingly, decision makers are finding vendors rather than the other way around, which make PR more important than ever for new business success.

Instead of chasing new business through cold calls, which has very limited effectiveness these days, agencies need to use PR strategically to help them be discovered by decision makers.

Here are 15 questions to help your agency get started on the road to PR success.

These questions are designed to assist you in assessing your situation, your highest priorities and needs, and what you really want to accomplish through public relations.

Once you and your team have thought through and answered these questions, you will be much better prepared to have a productive conversation with a PR person or PR agency:

  1. What is the desired result from PR (e.g. increase awareness, change perception, be positioned as an expert in a particular niche, generate new business or something else)?
  2.  How would you rate your agency’s PR capabilities on a scale from 1-10, with 10 being the best and 1 the worst?
  3. How would you rate your agency’s new business focus on a scale from 1-10, where 10 is perfectly targeted and 1 is we’re all over the map?
  4. Are you looking for PR help with your agency, to offer it as a service to clients, or both?
  5. What is the primary way you use or would like to use PR in your agency: Agency promotion, new business development, provide as a service to clients or enhance integrated marketing communications capabilities?
  6. How effective were your past PR efforts (assuming you had some)?
  7. What PR opportunities can you identify that have not been maximized?
  8. How would you describe your agency’s positioning/branding?
  9. How would you define your target audience for new business?
  10. How should PR integrate into your new business strategy?
  11. How does social media fit with your new business strategy and PR?
  12. Where would you like to obtain publicity (i.e. target publications, bloggers, radio/TV programs)?
  13. What speaking events would you like to be invited to participate in, and how can PR help with that?
  14. How will you define PR success?
  15. How will you measure that success?

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What “The Thing” and Ad Agency PR Have in Common

The Thing in ArizonaIf you’ve ever driven across Arizona on I-10, you’ve no doubt heard aboutThe Thing.”

Along a 200-mile stretch in the desert 247 billboards cry out to drivers to come see “The Mystery of the Desert.” The Thing.

Mile after mile, there’s nothing much to look at along the roadside except red, black and yellow signs tantalizing readers to stop and view The Thing. It’s been a tourist attraction since 1950, and surely one of the greatest marketing campaigns of all time.

Years ago one of my clients told a story about a colleague whose father was a professor. They lived in California, but each year the family packed up and headed east where his father taught during the summers.

Their summer journeys took them through Arizona, so as a boy this colleague had to ride past these billboards—at least one every mile—about The Thing. You can imagine how irresistible it must have been for him; he desperately wanted to stop and see The Thing, whatever this mystery was.

But there was a problem: it cost a quarter to see The Thing.

His father was a real tight wad and refused to spend the money. And so every summer, year after year, this boy had to endure 200 miles of teaser billboards about The Thing.

Signs like, “The Thing?” then a littler farther down the road, “What is it?” and then “The Thing – What is it?” and “Don’t miss the thing!”

It sort of hurts to think about that, doesn’t it? This boy grew up never getting to see The Thing.

Fast forward some 20 years later, and this boy, who is now a man, finds himself traveling that same highway on a business trip. Only this time, he is NOT going to be denied.

He turns off the exit, pays the admission fee and goes inside to gaze at The Thing. The Mystery of the Desert.

After finally fulfilling this life-long dream of seeing The Thing, he called his father, who was now retired.

Dad, you’ll never guess where I am!” he said when his father answered the phone.

“Son, I have no idea. Where are you?”

“I just saw The Thing!”

His father was appalled. “You paid a quarter to see that Thing?”

“No, Dad, it’s a dollar now.”

When his father got over the shock of his son spending his money so foolishly, he said, “So, what is The Thing?”

There was a pause, and then with a smile you could hear through the phone came this reply:

“I’m not going to tell you.”

While there are probably a number of lessons that could be learned from this story, the one I want to focus on is the power of frequency.

Ad agencies know that for advertising to maximize its potential, there has to be sufficient frequency to effectively convey the advertising message and move the target market through the multi-step process that starts with awareness and ends with purchase.

Consistent advertising also reinforces a brand and provides top-of-mind awareness.

Yet when it comes to ad agency PR, agencies often lack consistency in their public relations efforts, relying instead sporadic activity. This is not the optimum way to utilize public relations, especially publicity.

Consistent ad agency PR can help you . . .

  • Build your agency’s brand and reputation
  • Give you a stronger presence in the marketplace
  • Make you more “discoverable” among those whom you most want to reach
  • Gain expert status for a particular agency niche

Frequency works extremely well in marketing The Thing, and it will work for your ad agency PR efforts.

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How to Generate Great Content in the New Year


Creating content that stands out from the pack isn’t easy to do, and sometimes even trying to define what constitutes excellent content can be a challenge.

What sort of content do people like so much that they want to share it? There probably are a variety of opinions about that subject, but first and foremost, great content is enjoyable to read.

It’s well written, relevant, timely and to the point–even downright entertaining–without a lot of extraneous fluff and stuff. It’s not a disguised sales pitch, a headline that promises one thing but delivers another, or a recycled version of conventional wisdom that really doesn’t offer anything new.

Below are my suggestions for 15 ways to generate great content in 2015. Of course, you won’t use all of these suggestions with each piece you write, but keeping them in mind will help you develop copy that is fresh, lively and on target for your audience:

  1. Offer new insights or information
  2. Provide new information
  3. Be practical and relevant
  4. Converse in an easy-to-understand manner
  5. Offer guidance for solving a problem
  6. Tackle a tough or controversial subject
  7. Offer thoughtful analysis
  8. Discuss a trend and its implications
  9. Make a prediction
  10. Take a counter viewpoint—or at least a different slant—to conventional wisdom on a particular topic
  11. Offer tips and advice that are actionable
  12. Answer questions
  13. Tell a story
  14. Use practical, real-life examples to illustrate key points
  15. Make an emotional connect

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Ad Agencies: Are You Winning Awards or Market Share?

Image of a trophyA number of years ago, I had the opportunity to work on a project with Coca-Cola Bottlers. One evening I went to dinner with the Coke representative for this project, and the subject of Pepsi’s advertising came up. At the time Pepsi was known for churning out some very creative and entertaining TV ads, and it had been successful in generating a lot of buzz.

Acknowledging his competitor’s advertising success, the Coke rep smiled and said, “Pepsi wins awards, and we win market share.”

Touché. He had put his finger on a problem that too often plagues agencies, whether they are focused on advertising, public relations, promotions, direct marketing, digital or some combination of them.

Agencies like to tout their awards, but at the end of the day if you aren’t helping your clients sell more of their products or services, or enhancing their reputations and goodwill, how much good are you really doing them?

Although I specialize in public relations, at one time or another in my career I’ve been involved in nearly every aspect of marketing—and I’ve been fortunate to have been part of some very talented teams that have won professional awards.

Creativity is important, but the most meaningful awards are those that can
be tied to achieving specific results and objectives.

In fairness, it’s important to recognize that agencies often lack control over a variety of factors that can affect a client’s sales. And it’s certainly possible for agencies to win awards and market share for their clients, so it doesn’t have to be one or the other. But too often I’ve seen agencies fall into the “Pepsi syndrome” of focusing more on the awards they’ve won than on how they have helped clients meet their business objectives.

When it comes to ad agency new business, PR should be playing a critical role in your overall strategy. If your agency’s PR efforts are winning awards but not helping you achieve new business success, it’s time to reevaluate what you are doing and how you are doing it.

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Crisis Management: It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish

One of the most important things a public relations advisor can do during a crisis is to help leadership keep a long-term perspective.

It’s not unusual for the negative publicity and intense scrutiny from the outside that often occurs during a crisis to be accompanied by a creeping sense of panic over loss of control and concern about what might happen next.

Sometimes a crisis is created by an opposing special-interest group that wants to stir up trouble and put the organization on the defensive. With the advantage of surprise, the group then continues to pour kerosene on the various fires it has set. Typically, the organization is caught off guard and forced to divert resources to fight these fires.

More times than not the result is a siege mentality and short-term focus, which only makes the situation worse (and plays into the hands of the opposition).

But, as cosmetics giant Mary Kay, Inc. emphasizes to its millions of independent beauty consultants worldwide, “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.”

Patience, not panic, will help an organization finish well in a crisis.

Here’s an example of how ad agency PR can make a big difference in helping clients successfully overcome short-term pain and enjoy long-term gain.

The agency where I worked prior to staring my own firm had a health care client that owned a medical center in the western part of the U.S. Out of the blue one day, the local paper ran a very damaging and misleading front-page story titled “Worried hospital employees seek help from union.”

The local Teamster’s Union had been attempting to organize the medical center’s employees through a series of meetings, so an “issue” had already raised its head. In spite of this red flag, no one in leadership at the medical center was expecting an article like this, which raised serious charges about patient safety, employee morale and overall quality of care.

Photo of Teamster's Union rep

The medical center’s marketing director contacted me the day the article appeared, asking for strategic counsel and help in formulating a response to the numerous accusations that had been made in the paper.

Our objectives were threefold:

  • Persuade employees to reject unionization
  • Motivate employees to lead the charge against the inaccurate reporting
  • Restore the community’s confidence in the medical center

Based on information obtained through some quick research, our agency developed a letter for medical center employees, a list of erroneous statements with corrective facts and a guest column bylined by the medical center’s CEO. We also recommended an in-person meeting between the center’s CEO and marketing director, and the paper’s editor and the reporter who wrote the story.

The list of erroneous statements, with corrective facts, was used in that meeting to make sure all salient points were covered and that the meeting stayed on track.

The meeting was a success and resulted in a front-page story titled “Staff defends hospital; refutes claims of compromised care.” In addition, a guest column by the CEO titled “Hospital takes health care seriously” also ran in the editorial section.

Supervisors gave the informational letter to employees, and then were available to answer questions they may have. With the facts in hand, employees were more effective in responding to questions they were getting from friends and neighbors. Corrective information also was provided to the community’s lone talk radio station.

A group of employees, through their own initiative, met separately with the paper, while others called or sent letters to the editor. Employees felt their competence had been attacked by the union, and they were a major factor in successfully delivering the message to the community that such attacks were untrue and totally unjustified.

According the medical center’s marketing director:

The union’s attempt to get the paper involved backfired due to the outpouring  of support the hospital received from our employees and the community.”

The most significant result, however, was the fact that union activity ceased after the medical center’s public response. Patient levels, which dropped dramatically after the first hit-piece article was published, quickly returned to normal.

The center’s rapid response also helped contain the story to the community, and more than a year after the incident there had been no further attempts to unionize the center by the Teamsters or any other union.

Not every crisis has this quick a turnaround—or as successful an ending—but the principle remains the same: Keep the long-term in view because the storm will eventually pass.

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