Ad Agencies: Your Client’s Smoldering PR Issue May be an Opportunity in Disguise

One of the best ways an ad agency’s PR team can earn its keep (and impress clients) is by identifying issues that could have an adverse effect on an organization and then getting in front of them with a proactive plan of action.

These situations are sometimes referred to as a “smoldering” crisis, meaning that a potentially damaging condition is known to one or more individuals. Most crises start out as smoldering issues that could have been anticipated and minimized—or headed off altogether—had appropriate action been taken in the early stages. Smoldering Issues Mgt Blog Post 5073940305_aa2ab32fc7_n

For example, if you have alligators roaming around parts of a theme park in areas frequented by guests, as was the case with Disney, you can foresee the potential for problems and do something preventative before tragedy strikes.

“A problem ignored is a crisis invited,” as Henry Kissinger once put it.

A crisis not only can damage an organization’s image, but also impede its ability to function because so many resources get diverted to dealing with the crisis. Issues management is the best solution because it proactively addresses a problem before it gets out of hand and wreaks havoc.

Some of my best PR successes are those that never saw the light of day—they had potential to turn into a crisis but were averted by dealing with them in the smoldering stage.

Such PR “saves” don’t show up in an agency’s “stats sheet,” but they can save a client millions of dollars in bad publicity and untold damage to a brand.

Sometimes, they can open the door to new opportunities and revenue for a company.

A number of years ago one of my clients—a regional energy company in the northeast called Agway Energy Products—was facing a smoldering issue, as was its competitors. High energy prices had been one of the most significant events in the news the previous winter, with the wholesale cost of natural gas having risen more than 400% in the past year.

Through a series of carefully timed news releases and media contacts, we were able to turn the negative issue of rising energy costs into a positive story for consumers by (1) explaining why these costs were rising so dramatically and (2) providing tips on ways to save on their energy bills without making great sacrifices to their comfort.

By taking the initiative to address this issue head-on, the company gained credibility and goodwill—and, likely lots of new customers. In just eight months we generated more than 200 interviews, appearances and information sessions with print, TV and radio media.

As far as I know, none of the company’s competitors made a similar effort to address rising energy costs in the region.Michael Meath AEP Photo - Copy

Commenting on the PR campaign, the company’s spokesman wrote, “In almost every instance, we were able to turn any negative angle around to a positive story which would help consumers find ways to increase the efficiency of their energy equipment, reduce the amount of energy they used, and focus on how they could increase their comfort by expanding their relationship with Agway.”

If something is smoldering at your agency or with one of your clients, deal with it now because chances are it won’t go away or improve through neglect. You’ll not only keep the situation from getting worse, but you may also find there’s an opportunity to turn those lemons into lemonade.

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Three Mistakes Agencies Often Make with Reporters

Having three decades of combined agency, journalism and corporation communications experience has enabled me to see public relations in action from a variety of perspectives. One of the lessons I’ve learned from interacting with reporters throughout the world is that making the right pitch to the right person at the right time is vital to publicity success.

It’s also important to know how the news media operate and have a good grasp of what constitutes a newsworthy story if you want to have effective working relationships with reporters.

Public relations and advertising are very different, and failing to understand these differences can be fatal to an agency’s publicity efforts.

Mistakes Agencies Often Make with Reporters 16185149128_a4db78e711

The following are three mistakes advertising, digital and media agencies often make when dealing with reporters:

#1. Failing to do adequate research.

Whether you’re dealing with your local paper, an industry publication or The Wall Street Journal, you need to take the time to find out which person covers the particular area you are interested in pursuing. Sending media materials generically to “Editor” or “Producer” isn’t good protocol and probably won’t get you very far.

Finding the right person is an important first step, but it’s equally important to research the reporter’s previous stories. Learn all you can about what the reporter covers, his or her interests and reporting style, and follow the reporter on social media before making contact. The more you can demonstrate that you understand a reporter’s audience and story preferences—and how he or she wants to be approached with ideas—the better your chances of success.

#2. Wasting reporters’ time with irrelevant pitches.

In a major survey of journalists, nearly 60% said the relevance of the materials they receive comes up short, citing it as their top problem with PR. Reporters are busy people who work under constant pressure and deadlines; don’t waste their time with pitches that aren’t appropriate.

When presenting a story idea, the most important things you can tell a reporter are who will care about it and why. Get to the point right away because media people don’t have time to hunt through your pitch to get to the news. Be clear and concise, including all the necessary information but nothing more.  Here’s a simple test to determine if your pitch passes the “so-what” factor: Put yourself in the reporter’s shoes and ask, “Would this story be interesting to my audience?”

A good story, from a reporter’s perspective, is one that:

  • Is timely
  • Fits the media outlet’s demographics and psychographics
  • Ties in with a current issue or trend
  • Is controversial or novel, or takes a contrarian perspective to conventional wisdom
  • Has a local angle (if pitching a local reporter)

#3. Writing like an advertising executive instead of like a reporter.

Trying to get earned media by sending disguised advertising or editorializing your story idea is the quickest way I can think of to get your information trashed and lose credibility with the news media. In fact, in the survey of journalists cited above, their biggest concern was that the information they receive is written like advertising, not journalism.

Craft your pitch as objectively as possible emphasizing its news or human interest aspect, or your expertise to comment and provide insights. If you’ve done your homework, you will know the reporter’s audience and area(s) of coverage so you can customize your pitch accordingly.

The more you can provide reporters with relevant, factual information that is timely, meaningful and targeted to their audiences, the more likely they are to take you seriously and provide positive coverage that enhances your agency’s credibility and builds its presence in the marketplace.

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My Ad Agency PR New Business Basics are Now Online

Audio of my “How to Craft an Agency PR Plan that Drives New Business” presentation from Michael Gass’s inaugural Fuel Lines New Business Conference is available at the Fuel Lines website.

Michael Gass portrait

Michael Gass

My session walks through the building blocks of creating a performance-based public relations plan for advertising, digital, media and PR agencies.

It also explains how the strategic use of PR can enhance awareness and credibility; distinguish your agency from competitors; and make it easier for decision makers to find you.

Key takeaways:

  • How PR helps prospects discover you
  • What PR can do for your agency that no other marketing tool can replicate
  • How a small- or mid-sized agency’s strategic use of PR can level the playing field with larger competitors
  • What your agency’s PR plan should include, and how to integrate PR into your new business development strategy
  • Cost-effective resources that can help you generate publicity
  • Why not having PR capabilities can cause your agency to miss out on new business opportunities

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My podcast interview with the Agency Management Institute’s Drew McClellan about what goes into a successful in-house ad agency PR program also is online.

Key takeaways:

  • The dramatic changes PR has seen over the years
  • How agencies can use PR as a strategic tool to drive new business
  • How to determine what stories to pitch
  • Ways you can become discoverable so that reporters can find you
  • The kind of news that is truly newsworthy for agencies
  • Why you shouldn’t think about using PR with the expectation that people will write stories about your agency
  • How agencies can get the right kind of attention
  • Incorporating PR into your business plan
  • How to correctly use PR in relation to speaking engagements
  • How to use Google Alerts to capitalize on PR opportunities
  • The steps to take right away to boost your PR

Alligator Attack has Forever Changed Disney’s Image

This one is hard to believe. Disney, one of the savviest PR enterprises in the world, has alligators roaming in the lagoons on its property in the vicinity of guests. Yesterday, the worst happened when a toddler was snatched by an alligator while he was playing at the edge of the Seven Seas Lagoon at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort. This afternoon, the toddler’s body was recovered by searchers, but so far not the killer alligator.

This is a tragedy beyond words, and one that should never have happened. A Disney spokesperson said there were “no swimming” signs posted in the area, but the toddler wasn’t swimming. Apparently there were no “beware of alligators” signs, so a natural question is what was being done to protect guests from an attack like this?

At least five alligators were caught and euthanized in an effort to find the alligator that killed the little boy, so this was not a case of a single rogue alligator that somehow made its way onto the grounds.

A few weeks prior to this incident, another family reportedly encountered an alligator at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, which is in the same vicinity, and informed a security officer.

In an interview with the Palm Beach Post, Nick Wiley with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission said that Disney has worked “diligently” to keep visitors from being “unduly exposed,” but he added that preventing alligators from coming on to Disney property is futile.

Really? There’s no barrier or other control method to keep alligators off Disney resort property? Then how about some signs specifically warning about the presence of alligators so that visitors aren’t unduly caught off guard? And how about some extra security in the tourist areas where alligators have been spotted? These would seem like prudent measures—unless Disney was concerned that warning guests in “the happiest place on earth” would scared some of them off.

I suspect that Disney will take some additional protective actions, including adding warning signs, but it’s too late for this family. My prayers are with them.

Beyond this personal tragedy, the Disney brand has been severely tarnished. If Disney really can’t protect its guests from alligator attacks, and the company failed to warn them of the potential danger, guests will inevitably wonder what else may not be safe there and what else they’re not being warned about.

Broken trust is hard to overcome, and the horrific nature of this incident is not something that people are going to forget.

Walt Disney World will continue to provide a world-class entertainment experience for families, but this fatal alligator attack has forever altered the company’s image.

Decline in Traditional and Social Media: What’s a PR Person to Do?

The news for traditional news media outlets continues to get worse. According to U.S. Labor Department data, jobs in the newspaper sector have declined nearly 60% since 1990. That is a staggering statistic, especially when one considers how the local paper used to be a routine part of everyday life.

Magazines lost 36 percent of their jobs during the same period, with radio employment down 27%.

Internet broadcasting and publishing employment, on the other hand, has grown from about 30,000 to nearly 198,000, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

None of this is terribly surprising, given that these trends have been going on for some time now. But what’s noteworthy is that a new study involving nine countries found that people are spending less time on social media apps.

Instagram and Twitter were both down nearly 24%; Snapchat use declined by about 16%; and Facebook by 8%. In the U.S., only Facebook fared better (though slightly)—it was down only 6.7% here.

News media outlets are declining, and so is the use of social media. What are the implications for public relations? Some perspective may be helpful.

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First, people are not communicating less, but rather in different ways.

Texting, for example, likely accounts for some of the drop in social media usage. Plus, new mobile apps are constantly being created, giving users additional options for making connections in new ways.

Second, while people aren’t reading newspapers and magazines like they used to, the exponential growth in Internet broadcasting and publishing jobs demonstrates that they are still interested in news and features, it’s just that many are getting them online.

As I noted in a July 2015 post, social media has become an essential part of journalistic practice, with 94% of journalists saying they use it daily, primarily to find sources and network. That percentage is probably even higher today. So, while use of social media apps may be down among general users, it’s still an important for organizations and individuals to be “discoverable” for journalists seeking sources.

Social media will remain an important way for companies and agencies to interact with customers and prospects, even if some of the apps used to reach them evolve.

Finding new ways to communication is the new norm for PR professionals. Knowing your audiences, and how they prefer to receive information and communicate with you, is vital to PR success, as is staying on top of trends.

There will always be an audience for people with expertise in a particular niche who are willing to share helpful information and tips, regardless of the medium used. And in spite of all the changes taking place in media, getting the right message to the right person at the right time is still the best path to PR success.

photo credit: Going down. via photopin (license)

 

 

PR Stunt with Fake Military Commandos Generates Awareness but Tarnishes Brand

Sometimes a PR stunt may seem like a clever idea when it’s first being kicked around, but upon further reflection it becomes apparent that the idea should never see the light of day.

Such was the case with a French Internet company’s spark of genius in using fake military commandos near the Cannes Film Festival. This one apparently skipped the further reflection phase and went directly to implementation, followed by disaster.

I Love PR button

According to a FOX News story, a group of six men in ISIS militia-style gear approached a historic celebrity-filled hotel near the festival. One of the men reportedly stormed the stairs leading up to the resort. Panic ensued as “someone screamed and people jumped out of their chairs and started moving quickly.” Surprise, surprise. Who would ever have anticipated a reaction that like?

When the dust cleared it was disclosed that the incident was a publicity ploy to promote Oraxy, a French start-up tech company’s Internet site, which the company says is “reserved exclusively for Ultra High Net Worth Individuals.”

Did it get attention? Oh yeah.

Did it build awareness of Oraxy? Definitely. No telling how many zillions it would cost in advertising to equal the publicity garnered by using fake terrorists to scare the daylights out of wealthy hotel guests at one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world.

Will amused “Ultra High Net Worth Individuals” flock to Oraxy’s “global marketplace” site after this incident? I have my doubts.

Gaining attention does not necessarily gain market share, and adverse publicity like this can cause enormous long-term damage to a brand.

An Oraxy spokesperson confirmed the incident was a publicity stunt and said it was coordinated with maritime authorities. “The spokesperson said the unidentified owners feel ‘really bad’ about scaring people on the hotel property.”

Given the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere, and the authentic look of these fake commandos, could anyone really think there would be any other reaction than fear? If the Oraxy folks couldn’t foresee the panic that was likely to take place, wouldn’t you think the maritime authorities would have raised a red flag and put the kibosh on this?

A little common sense and what-if questioning could have saved  a lot of grief.

For more years than I can remember, I’ve had a sign in my office that some insightful unknown person created to outline the six phases of a project (in this case a stunt):

  1. Enthusiasm
  2. Disillusionment
  3. Panic
  4. Search for the guilty
  5. Punishment of the innocent
  6. Praise and honors for the non-participants

I suspect Oraxy followed the first five steps but will skip number six altogether, because no one will want to take credit for this fiasco.

photo credit: Cloudberry Communications via photopin cc

Citizen Journalism & What It Means for Ad Agency PR

As newsrooms continue to cut back on staff, citizen journalism continues to grow. Starting this month, Fox Television Stations has begun employing citizen journalists and is the first major media outlet to do so, according to an article in the New York Post.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a citizen journalist is someone outside of the news business who does the kind of reporting that was traditionally done by professionals. Some citizen journalists analyze, report and disseminate news through their own online outlets.

Fox has partnered with Fresco News, a crowd-sourced news startup that has signed up hundreds of citizen journalists in cities across the country. Once you sign up, Fresco says it “notifies you about nearby breaking news events when news outlets need photos and videos for their coverage. When a news outlet downloads or uses your photo or video, you get paid instantly!”

Close Up of Reporters’ Cameras Image medium_3082476355

This is quite a change from the “old days” of traditional journalism, and I believe it is a positive one. Audiences that in the past only received information increasingly have opportunities to engage and participate. While a letter to the editor used to be the primary way to agree with or challenge something written in the local paper, today articles that appear online as well as in print often give readers a chance to add comments.

There also are more ways for readers or viewers with expertise on a particular topic to be available as a source to answer questions and/or provide insight. Help A Reporter Out (HARO) is one example of a resource that connects journalists looking for sources with people who are interested in sharing expertise in exchange for publicity. (Bringing qualified leads from reporters seeking sources directly to one’s inbox is every PR person’s dream.)

But citizen contributions are different than having citizens reporting news. With social media, blogs have made such reporting possible—and empowered average people in ways that were unimaginable only a few decades ago. Now, if the news media ignore a story, one or more bloggers can cover it and create a buzz online. Sometimes they can even shame reporters into covering stories that otherwise would have gone unreported. Or, if the reporting is biased, social media can quickly get out corrective facts and documentation.

In other cases, citizen journalists can get to the scene quicker than a news crew, or add extra arms and legs to the reporting team.

“News consumers generally receive a single angle to a story, because news outlets almost always assign one camera or one reporter to any one news scene,” said John Meyer, the 21-year-old founder of Fresco. “But we’re already seeing video on TV from three or four Fresco contributors who are covering the same protest, which adds a new dimension to how stories are presented.”

One example cited in the Post article was a March 7 pre-dawn fire. “Fox 29 sent out a Fresco alert about a fire in Moorestown, Pa. — a 20-minute ride from the station. The station instantly received ‘great video of a huge fire’ . . . whereas crews dispatched by its competitors were lucky to get ‘smoking embers’ by the time they arrived.”

This naturally raises some questions:

  • Will citizen journalists be perceived to have the same level of credibility as traditional journalists?
  • With surveys showing a decrease in trust in the news media, could citizen journalists actually be seen as being more fair and objective?
  • How will busy news outlets verify the authenticity of photos and videos?
  • Who will bear the brunt of legal actions brought against a citizen journalist?
  • What will this trend mean for public relations professionals?

To this last question, for the purpose of this post, I will refine it even further to ask how the trend toward citizen journalism will impact ad agency PR.

The short answer is I believe it will broaden opportunities for agencies and their clients to become sources for stories. As newsroom staff shrink in size, being available to provide expertise and credible information to reporters who are already stretched will become increasingly valuable. Agencies also need to expand their relationships to include citizen journalists who regularly contribute content to media outlets.

Today there are more opportunities than ever to not only have your voice heard, but also to engage and even shape news coverage.

photo credit: Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious via photopincc