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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Ad Agency PR Is Never More in Demand than During a Crisis

Palm tree in Puerto Rico

A couple weeks ago, a car crashed into the church I attend. That’s right, a car. And it did some major damage to the area it hit. (The car didn’t come out of this all that well either.)

It happened late at night when the driver, who apparently was traveling at a high rate of speed, missed the curve in front of our church and plowed into the building. He fled on foot, but it didn’t take long for the police to track him down.

I have to admit that I never thought about the possibility of a car hitting our church—but it did. The incident was a stark reminder that a crisis can strike at any time, without warning.

Ad agency PR is never  more in demand—and needed—than in a crisis. A case in point is another incident that took place—also at night—that not only was unexpected, but potentially devastating to a mental health center owed by an agency client.

Somewhere around 3:30 a.m., on a Friday, I got a call from one of the agency’s partners where I worked at the time saying that the client’s mental health center in San Juan, Puerto Rico, had just experienced a fire that damaged a unit of the facility.

Two patients were dead, and reporters were onsite covering the story.

Rumors were flying, I was told, and I needed to get on a plane in the morning to go handle the matter. My weekend was going to a little different than I planned.

When I arrived in San Juan and entered the hotel lobby, my eyes were drawn to a newspaper with a front-page story and photo about a prison riot where 26 people were injured and several guards had been taken hostage. The news media left the mental health center to cover the prison riot, which bought us some time to get organized.

I quickly discovered that the number of newspapers in San Juan numbers in the teens, making it feel more like a regional than local story given the number of print outlets we had to deal with (not to mention radio and TV).

After being transported from my hotel to the mental health center, it didn’t take long for me to realize that the marketing director and chief medical officer (who served as our spokesman) were top-notch pros, and they were going to make my job much easier.

Plus, the center had established good relationships in the community, so it had plenty of goodwill to draw upon, and there was no shortage of people who were willing to help us.

After a quick briefing to ascertain the facts, determine what had been communicated by the media (including rumors that the facility had burned to the ground) and making a list of all our audiences, we developed a game plan, followed by a crash media training session in which I helped our spokesman and marketing director prepare for interviews.

Here’s what happened next:

  • We established a link with the police and fire department spokespersons to get advance notice of what they would say to the media so that we had time to prepare our responses.
  • I worked with the staff to put together a brief statement for employees, patient family members and the news media, updating them on the latest information. The statement expressed concern for the victims’ families and appreciation for the heroic efforts of the staff who tried to save everyone, and managed to do so except, unfortunately, for the two patients who perished. (I later learned these patients were suspected of having set the fire in the first place).
  • The statement included a clear but low-key message that the hospital was functioning, and that only one unit of it was affected by the fire.
  • We also developed a fact sheet explaining what happened to combat rampant rumors and made it available to reporters and other interested parties.
  • Media coverage of our statement was light because of the Columbus Day holiday (which I learned is a big deal in Puerto Rico), so we took out full-page ads reprinting it in leading newspapers.
  • We also sent a letter from our spokesperson, who was highly respected in the local medical community, to key referral sources to ensure they understood that the center was functioning.
  • Finally, we encouraged health care professionals in the community to speak out on behalf of the center within their areas of influence.

All this took place over the weekend, and in less than 48 hours I was able to return home.

In the days that followed, the mental health center reported very positive responses from the community, while the news media was on to its next story.

My main takeaway from this experience: We were able to manage this crisis so effectively in large part because of competent staff and positive relationships in the community.

photo credit: Ricymar Photography (Thanks to all the fans!!!!) via photopin cc

Do Reporters Really Hate PR Pros?

Love hate text

There’s always been a certain amount of tension between reporters and public relations professionals, even though there’s a symbiotic relationship between the two.

Reporters need credible sources and a constant stream of story ideas, while PR people need the news media to help them share important information and spread the word about their clients or employers.

PR people want coverage as favorable as possible, while good reporters want a balanced story that presents all sides and perspectives. PR people want to help shape and influence the story, while reporters bristle when they feel they are being pushed or manipulated.

While there are more PR options available than ever thanks to social media, the news media still are very important because of their reach and perceived credibility.

Anyone who is going to be successful in PR needs to be able to work successfully with reporters, so when I came across an article titled “Why do reporters hate PR pros so much?” I was intrigued.

The headline says “reporters,” which implies all reporters feel this way. And not only do reporters hate PR pros, but they hate them “so much.” That seems like a stretch to me.

It’s been quite a while since I was a reporter, but I can honestly say that I never hated PR people who contact me to share a story idea, even those who were on the annoying side. (In fairness I should mention that I wasn’t a reporter for all that long, so my attitude may have changed had I been on the receiving end of pitches year after year.)

Using several Tweets from disgruntled reporters attacking PR people to support her contention, the writer of this article asks, “Why would anyone hate to hear from someone that is trying to help them professionally?”

And therein lies an important clue as to the cynicism some reporters have toward the PR profession.

As a reporter, I never once thought that someone was trying to help me professionally by pitching a story to me. Nor was my motivation to help a reporter advance professionally by suggesting a particular topic to him or her when I flipped over to the PR side.

My motivation was self-serving:  I was seeking publicity for another party, usually one with which I had a financial interest.

If I did my homework, I knew I was approaching a reporter who covered a particular industry and subject matter to ensure that my pitch was relevant. Ideally, this resulted in a win-win situation for all concerned: A good story for the reporter and a happy client, which in turn made me happy.

The notion that reporters should want to hear from us because we want to help them professionally is about as believable as “I’m with the government and am here to help you.”

The writer goes on to conjecture that “There is something fundamentally wrong with the way PR pros relate to the media.”

That’s undoubtedly true in some cases, but there also are quite a few PR professionals who work very successfully with the media because they understand how reporters think and operate. They take the time to learn what the reporter covers, the preferred methods of contact, when the reporter is on deadline and the types of stories that interest him or her before reaching out.

One of the writer’s suggestions to remedy a PR industry that is “clearly broken,” as she put it, is to send e-mails to reporters that are not pitches but rather “how are you?” inquiries. Considering how much e-mail most reporters get, I suspect that last suggestion is more likely to irritate them, unless you know the reporter very well.

I’m not convinced that the PR industry is broken, nor am I persuaded that we can draw sweeping conclusions from a few negative tweets.

My advice to anyone who wants to be successful in working with the news media is to:

  • Put yourself in the shoes of the reporter you want to reach, and ask yourself how you would like to be approached with a story idea.
  • Get to the point, don’t waste their time and offer them something that is genuinely news or feature worthy within the niche(s) they cover.
  • Understand the details of what you’re pitching, and be prepared to give a succinct explanation as to why it’s worth their time.
  • Take into consideration the timing of your pitch. Old news or a subject that’s been covered from every conceivable angle is not likely to generate much enthusiasm.
  • Avoid taking rejection personally. Look for other opportunities and at all costs avoid being a pest.

Just as having good content is critical to content-marketing success, having a good story idea that is well targeted and properly presented is critical to success in the public relations business.

photo credit: Skley via photopin cc

What Every Ad Agency New Business Director Should Know about PR

 

I Love PR button

While there are many things that go into a successful ad agency new business program, one that is often overlooked or underutilized is the strategic use of public relations.

Whether your agency emphasizes outbound or inbound marketing – or a combination of the two – PR is an important tool that can help you attract attention and generate new business opportunities.

Here are six things that every ad agency new businesses director should know about PR and how it can give them a competitive edge:

First, as I have noted in previous posts, articles and interviews, PR gives your agency credibility in a way no other medium can because it allows an objective secondary source – a reporter or blogger – to tell your story for you.

Of course agencies provide background information, messaging and insights to help shape such stories, but people tend to give more weight to a news article or a post from a credible blog than from advertising or personal sales.

Second, PR is effective in building widespread awareness, which is particularly useful in getting in front of decision makers who may be difficult to reach through other means.

  • In the past PR shined brightest in generating coverage with TV, radio and print media, but today the Internet can spread the word exponentially.

Third, for inbound marketing initiatives, PR makes you easier to be discovered by prospective clients doing research to identify agencies with your area of expertise.

Fourth, PR can play a vital role in new business development through content creation and management. Many people in public relations have backgrounds with print or broadcast media. Former reporters tend to be good story tellers, which is essential for good content marketing.

  • They know how to consistently provide useful, well-targeted information that is enjoyable to read, builds trust, engages customers and enhances the brand – without coming across as disguised advertisements.

Fifth, with a creative PR writer driving your agency’s content marketing, agencies of any size can compete. To be effective, the content must be relevant, credible and enjoyable to read. It also must be search engine optimized and updated regularly to maximize its potential for attracting new business.

  • It’s easy to talk about producing high-quality, engaging content, but it’s another thing to actually do so on a consistent basis. Agencies that have the discipline to be consistent will reap rewards for their diligence.

Sixth, PR pros are generally the best suited to handle social media engagement. Public relations by definition involves dealing with the public, and PR specialists know the importance of responding to inquiries or complaints accurately, efficiently and tactfully.

  •  Because good public relations focuses on two-way communication with audiences, they understand how to converse with diverse groups or individuals, talking with them rather than at them. And because they often work with reporters who are on deadline, PR people have a keen appreciation for the value of responding in a timely manner.

Social media allows us to start or participate in conversations with individuals we might otherwise not reach. We can answer questions, solve problems, have constructive debates and gain a better understanding of issues and concerns from the other person’s perspective.

To sum it up, PR can give your ad agency’s new business initiatives unparalleled ways of gaining awareness and credibility; enable your agency to communicate directly and indirectly with prospects and influencers; and assist in building your brand and reputation in the marketplace.

photo credit: Cloudberry Communications via photopin cc

What I Learned from My Biggest PR Flop

  Swimmer doing a belly flop

Recently a client asked me to describe my biggest professional failure. (Glad he didn’t ask about my biggest personal failure, as it would have taken me a while to sort through that list.)

I was tempted to borrow Hank Dye’s response when he was asked the same question in a new business presentation. At the time Hank was president of Dye, Van Mol & Lawrence, a leading PR firm in the Southeast and the agency that brought me to Nashville.

Without missing a beat he said, “There weren’t any that the clients knew about.”

Hank understood the importance of serving clients with excellence, and when mistakes happened – as they inevitably do – he was quick to get them corrected.

One of the things that impressed me when I interviewed at DV&L was the agency’s written commitment: “We will do what is right, even if it hurts us.”

Those weren’t just words, we lived by them. (Hank, but the way, was a great mentor to me in many ways, and I will be forever grateful for all that I leaned from him and the other partners.)

Unfortunately, some failures do get noticed by clients. At the top of my list is an event I was responsible for managing that involved the launch of a client’s new product.

At the time I headed up the public relations department for an advertising agency. Everything for the event was planned in great detail. We had several well-known national speakers lined up, along with the company’s CEO and other top executives. I had hired a videographer through a national paid news service to do a video news release (VNR) to help us extend our broadcast coverage, and my team and I had done a full-court press to turn out the news media. We had an excellent press kit and media advisory, and we felt very good about the launch.

In the early morning hours the day of the event, several tornadoes ripped through Middle Tennessee, including downtown Nashville where our event was being held. Guess where all the news media were the morning of our launch? Out covering the damage. We had one TV crew show up briefly for our event, but for the most part it was a publicity flop.

The client understood that there’s nothing much we could do under the circumstances, but it still was very disappointing. We put together a post-event news release with photos, and distributed them through a paid release distribution service as well as through our media list, along with the VNR. We picked up some good national coverage that way, but not as much as we could have gotten under normal conditions.

If we are wise, we learn more from our PR failures than from our successes. One of the lessons I learned from this failure was to always be prepared for the unexpected. Rather than assuming that everything is going to go as scheduled, I now assume something outside of my control will go wrong. I ask more “what if” questions and have a carefully thought through contingency plan.

Of course this event is not the only PR venture that didn’t go as well as I planned, but it’s the one that stands out most in mind my – and the event for which I’d most like to have a redo.

 photo credit: dps via photopin cc

The Most Important Part of Your Agency’s Pitch to Reporters

 

Man pitching a baseballWhile there are a number of things that go into an effective pitch letter to reporters, I believe the most important is your headline (or subject line if sending by e-mail). The reason is simple: If the headline doesn’t grab them, they’re not likely to read your pitch letter no matter how well it’s crafted.

During my days as an editor for a healthcare magazine, I got a lot of mail. Here’s a news release headline that a well-meaning hospital or agency public relations executive sent me one day:

CDH TO HOST LAPAROSCOPIC HERNIORRAPY PRECEPTORSHIP

One in a half-million or so people would have a clue what that headline was about.

And ask yourself: how much interest does it generate?  The release itself was fairly well written, and once I read the first few sentences I realized the hospital was hosting a seminar about advancements in hernia operations.

But most reporters – even those in healthcare –wouldn’t get past that headline. The release would end up in the recycle bin or deleted before the first paragraph was read.

The headline should describe, in simple terms, what the seminar is about and why it merits attention. For example, if this involves a new procedure, the headline should make that point up front.

A couple days ago a colleague forwarded an article to me titled “A World-Class News Release.” The writer, Denny Hatch, is a columnist for Target Marketing magazine and author of a new book called Write Everything Right!

Mr. Hatch gets a lot of news releases e-mailed to him, 90% of which he estimates are “unreadable.” Recently he received an e-mail with this subject line:

Infographic: Who is a fraud perpetrator?

Intrigued, he began reading an e-mail news release (with an introductory note) from Scott Patterson, senior public relations specialist with the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. Mr. Hatch described it as “perfect in every way.”

The copy started with a couple of attention-getting questions: What are some of the characteristics of a fraudster?That is, who are the people who commit occupational fraud, stealing from their employer or clients?

Mr. Hatch – not an easy man to please – liked the content so much that he listed the entire pitch, with key takeaways that included this:

  • If the reader does not get beyond the headline, the entire effort is a 100 percent failure—in terms of money spent and time wasted.

“Hey all you P.R. folks, learn from this guy!” Mr. Hatch advises.

Duly noted – and congratulations to Mr. Patterson for an excellent pitch that started with a stand-out subject line.

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Never Deny the Obvious

One of my all-time favorite apologies came from the CEO of a company who, after reading a long list of grievances recited by an offended customer, started his letter with, “Clearly, we screwed up.”

No excuses. No whining. No defensiveness. Just a clear acknowledgment that the company made a mistake, with the letter apologizing for it and taking corrective action.

The apology was made directly to the offended party who, as I recall, shared it with others and eventually the mea culpa made its way onto a list of excellent apology letters.

I have certainly made my share of mistakes, and when I make one I try to go directly to the offended individual(s) to apologize and ask forgiveness. I’ve had occasion to do this as recently as a few days ago.

  • We can’t control whether people will believe us or forgive us, but we can and should acknowledge our mistake with the offended party. It’s the right thing to do.

Organizations that make mistakes and are quick to apologize will find that most people are quick to forgive. Of course the apology must be sincere to really be effective. If you’ve made a mistake, though, you should want to do what you can to make things right with the offended individual(s) as soon as possible.

Digging in and refusing to acknowledge a mistake generally makes matters much worse, and an insincere apology is usually pretty easy to detect and counterproductive.

  • One of my early career mentors once gave me this sage advice: “Never deny the obvious.”

It’s amazing, though, how many companies and individuals do that very thing. If it’s obvious that you, your agency or client has made a mistake, acknowledge it, take responsibility, ask forgiveness and then move on.