The Best Tool for Evaluating the Effectiveness of Your Agency’s Communications

A communications audit helps identify strengths and weaknesses in an agency’s communications, as well as perceptions that exist and barriers which prevent or inhibit effective communication. An audit also flags areas that may require more in-depth, quantitative research.

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What is a communications audit?

A communications audit is a management tool that helps agencies and their clients determine how effectively they are communicating with various audiences. It involves the collection and analysis of information about perceptions clients and influencers have about the agency. In essence, a communications audit is a snapshot of an organization at a given time. An audit may be broad or narrow, focusing on a particular audience or a variety of audiences. Likewise, the audit may address a single issue or a wide range of issues affecting an agency. The bottom-line goal for any audit, however, should be to improve the effectiveness of an organization’s communication with important audiences.

Why should an organization have one?

A communications audit can help agencies and/or their clients understand how well their messages are being received and accepted by audiences. While people may think that others understand and accept their messages, the fact of the matter is that we are often unaware of how the messages we send are received or understood. Equally important as sending a message is listening for feedback. A communications audit also can help identify barriers to effective communication and provide practical solutions.

How is a communications audit conducted?

The best way to conduct a communications audit is through an independent, third-part individual who thoroughly understands the communication process. Audits typically include a review of formal and informal communication processes; one-on-one interviews with community and industry leaders, influencers, customers and members of the organization; focus groups; and sometimes surveys.

What are the expected results?

An audit gives organizations an opportunity to find out what they are doing well in their communications and where they need to improve. The audit also may uncover important issues or perceptions that need to be addressed, and in some cases it will significantly alter the way an organization operates.

It’s hard to fix something if you don’t know exactly where it’s broken. A communications audit helps identify communication gaps, barriers and pitfalls, and it ultimately provides a roadmap to get communications back on track.

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Strategic Use of PR Is a Competitive Advantage for Agencies

Whether your agency emphasizes inbound or outbound marketing—or a combination of the two—public relations is an important tool for attracting attention, building your brand and generating new business opportunities.

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Targeted publicity enables secondary sources—the news media and bloggers—to tell your story and build your brand’s image and reputation. 

It also gives your brand something no other marketing tool can fully replicate: credibility. Although you lack control of what’s reported by the news media, that’s exactly why such coverage is so much more credible than an ad—people know the story has gone through a third-party vetting process.

While agencies provide background information, messaging and insights to help shape stories, clients and prospects tend to give more weight to a news article or a post from a credible blog than from advertising, social media or personal sales.

Agency PR also is effective in increasing awareness among decision makers who may be difficult to reach through other means, and it enhances inbound marketing initiatives because a steady stream of favorable publicity makes your agency easier to be found by prospects seeking your area of expertise.

Many people in public relations have backgrounds with print or broadcast media. Former reporters tend to be excellent 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.

If used strategically, PR will give your agency a real competitive edge—particularly in new business initiatives—because it provides an unparalleled way of gaining awareness and credibility; enables your agency to communicate effectively with clients, prospects and influencers; and assists in building your brand and reputation in the marketplace.

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Why PR Is Best Suited to Lead Social Media Initiatives

Marketing, advertising, new business, customer service, human resources and others have important business reasons for using social media. But when it comes to mapping agency or corporate strategy, I believe that public relations is the discipline best equipped for leading the social media charge.

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Here’s why PR is naturally suited for this role:

  • PR people are storytellers who create content that is targeted, relevant and valuable
  • They are trained to converse with a variety of audiences
  • They are responsible for managing an organization’s image
  • They help an organization speak with one voice through clear and consistent communication
  • They know how to engage audiences and talk with (not at) them

The hallmark of good public relations has always been two-way communication, which is vital for social media success.

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

  • But beware: a post from any department in an organization is seen as representing the entire organization.

Unfortunately, some entities operate in aimless social media silos instead of having a synergistic plan for search engine optimization, reputation management and business impact.

As a result, there is no unified message or purpose, and “Likes” and “Shares” are considered barometers of success rather than attracting and cultivating targeted leads and converting them into sales.

The real strength of social media is its interactive nature, which enables us to build relationships and enhance trust in ways that other mediums can’t match. Social media gives agencies, businesses and nonprofits unparalleled ways of communicating one-on-one with customers, donors, prospects, influencers and other interested parties.

It’s what PR professionals do every day.

photo credit: MySign AG Social Media via photopin (license)

Why the In-N-Out Boycott Came and Went

It may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but after a spectacular backfire California Democratic party chairman Eric Bauman has no doubt been pondering in recent days “what was I thinking?” in trying to stir up a boycott of the wildly popular In-N-Out Burger chain.

Just days after sending a tweet saying “it’s time to #BoycottInNOut,” Mr. Bauman abruptly reversed course and now claims “There is no boycott.”

In-N-Out’s offense? The company made donations to the California Republican Party. Gasp. For its part, In-N-Out clarified that the company made equal contributions to both Democratic and Republican PACs in California.

Having lived in Southern California for seven years, I can personally attest to the huge fan base In-N-Out has in the state. It’s a California icon, and there’s no other fast-food chain quite like it. In-N-Out was a favorite stop for my family and me (the milkshakes are fabulous), and now fans are rallying to the restaurant chain’s defense, just as fans of Chick-fil-A responded to a similar ill-conceived boycott there several years ago.
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Mike Huckabee, who came up with the record-setting Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day when the chain was targeted for a boycott, called for a “buy-cott” of In-N-Out, describing it as a “wonderful company” and asking a very reasonable question: “Why can’t a business express itself?”

I avoid doing business with organizations that I know support causes I don’t agree with, as do many people of all political and religious persuasions. But for a state party leader to call publicly for a boycott for giving contributions to the opposition party is really quite amazing, especially since In-N-Out gave money to both parties.

Boycotts can be tricky and risky. To avert a PR disaster that blows up in one’s face, it’s worth asking some important questions before encouraging people to avoid buying products or services from a company, such as:

  1. Is this an issue worthy of a boycott? A boycott can do more harm than good—especially in terms of perceptions—when it backfires like this one did. It’s hard to get people worked up over equal donations to opposing political parties.
  2. What will be the public perception of the boycott? It’s also difficult to get massive participation in a boycott that most people think is ridiculous. Generally speaking, people don’t like to see companies like In-N-Out attacked and dragged into a controversy when they’ve done nothing wrong
  3. What is the desired outcome of the boycott? Did Mr. Bauman really expect to bully In-N-Out into giving all its donations to one party? If that was the endgame, his effort was doomed from the start. Is it feasible to refer to In-N-Out as “those creeps,” as Mr. Bauman did in his tweet, and win the hearts and minds of the Californians? I don’t think so.
  4. Can the boycott be sustained long term? It usually takes a while for a boycott to affect a company’s bottom line, so there need to be sufficient resources, energy and passion to keep the boycott in front of the public. Even Californians who agree with Mr. Bauma may find those burgers, fries and shakes irresistible for more than a few weeks.
  5. If successful, what precedent will the boycott set? Do we really want to punish companies like In-N-Out for giving money to political parties? Republicans could, in turn, call for boycotts of well-known liberal companies like Starbucks because it gives money to Democrats. Where would this end? Or Republicans could call for a boycott of In-N-Out because it gives money to Democratic PACS in California. Between the two parties, successful boycotts could put the chain out of business for the absurd reason of making donations to both parties.

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A far better approach, in my opinion, is to support freedom of expression for everyone and make buying decisions based on one’s conscience and preferences rather than the recommendations of someone like Mr. Bauman, who heads a state party that routinely lectures us about the importance of tolerance and diversity. Why listen to someone who doesn’t practice what his party preaches?

Three Mistakes Agencies Often Make with Reporters

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.

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The following are three mistakes agencies and other organizations 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
  • Is controversial or novel, or takes a contrarian perspective to conventional wisdom
  • Has a local angle (if pitching a local reporter)
  • Ties in with a current issue or trend

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.

photo credit: symphony of love Master Cheng Yen Do not fear making mistakes in life, fear only not correcting them via photopin (license)

Do You Know the Name of the Person Who Cleans Your Building?

In his second month as an MBA student, one of Mike’s professors gave a pop quiz.

Mike breezed through the questions until the last one: “What is the first name of the woman who cleans this building?”

Surely this was some kind of joke. He’d seen the cleaning woman several times. She was tall, brunette and in her 50s, but how would he know her name?

He handed in the paper, leaving the last question blank.

Before class ended another student asked if the last question would count.

“Absolutely,” the professor answered. “In your lives, in your careers, you’ll meet many people. All are significant. They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say hello.”

“I’ve never forgotten that lesson,” Mike wrote many years later. “I also learned her name was Dorothy.”

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With a simple test question, that professor communicated a powerful truth about recognizing the importance of every person.

The Golden Rule—treating others as you would like to be treated—is the most effective way I know to develop loyal, trustworthy team members who feel appreciated, valued and respected.

In his book EntreLeadership, Dave Ramsey writes: “Too many people in business have abandoned sight of the fact that their team members are humans, they are people. Too many people in business have become so shallow that they are merely transactional, not relational.

“The people on your payroll are not units of production, they are people. They have dreams, goals, hurts, and crises. If you trample them or don’t bother to engage them relationally you will forever struggle in your operations.”

Being kind, inclusive and demonstrating genuine interest are not only right things to do, but they also make good business sense.

I have seen great marketing ideas come from people at all levels of an organization. It’s amazing what creative thinking and insights people have if we take initiative to draw them out a bit.

They’ll open up if they trust us and believe we really care about them.

But first, we need to know their names. Whose name do you need to learn today?

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What to do When a New Business Prospect Falls Asleep in Your Presentation

A common job interview question is: “What’s the most challenging workplace situation you’ve faced, and how did you handle it?”

That’s an easy one for me. I remember the situation very well and have never had anything like it happen since.

The president of the agency that brought me to Nashville and I were on a trip to South Carolina for a new business opportunity with a business-to-business manufacturing company that needed public relations assistance.

We happened to be traveling on a day when a hurricane was hitting the East Coast, and while it wasn’t threatening our area, we were getting a lot of rain and strong wind, which made for a pretty exciting ride in the small plane that was taking us from Atlanta to an airport in the Carolinas.

When we arrived at the manufacturer’s headquarters, we were ushered into a small conference room where the president and I sat across the table from the company’s CEO and a couple of other executives, one of whom was the plant manager.

After the usual exchange of pleasantries, we dimmed the lights for our power-point presentation, and the president began giving an overview of our agency’s capabilities and clients in his deep Southern drawl.

After about 15 or 20 minutes of this, he turned the presentation over to me while raising the lights, saying, “And now Don is going to tell you about some of our business-to-business clients.”

As I pivoted in my chair from facing the wall where the presentation was projected to look directly at the three men, I noticed something peculiar.

The guy across the table to my left—the plant manager—was sound asleep.

He was having a nice rest, making that sort of heavy breathing/whistling sound when he exhaled.

Although he was sitting upright in his chair, he looked very comfortable in his slightly slumped over position. In fact, I think he had entered the Rapid Eye Movement phase of his nap because he was really out.

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Well, this was awkward.

I was supposed to be making a presentation to a guy who was sound asleep.

We had flown from Nashville around the edge of a hurricane for this meeting, and now one of the three people I was presenting to was in dreamland.

I didn’t know what to do.

What I wanted to do was reach across the table and start shaking him, saying, “Wake up, you sluggard! You’re ruining my presentation and making me look bad in front of my boss!” (Who, I note in my defense, was the one that actually put the guy to sleep before I said a word.)

But of course I couldn’t do that because this was a prospective client. I had to be nice. And polite. And flexible.

The CEO, who was sitting next to him, and the other man to my right were staring at me with a frozen look of anguish.

On the positive side, I clearly had their undivided attention. But it became equally clear that they weren’t going to bail me out by waking him up.

I glanced out of the corner of my eye and caught a priceless expression on the face of our agency’s president. I was hoping for some non-verbal guidance, but he was no help at all.

His eyes were wide and he gave me a look that said, “I don’t have a clue what to do, you’re on your own.”

All four of us in the room knew that the fifth guy was out cold, but no one would acknowledge it.

So, in this surreal environment, I started talking through my portion of the presentation to the men who were still awake.

But it wasn’t quite that simple because every so often the guy who was asleep would roll his head and make sort of a snorting sound with his mouth half open.

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I was sure I was going to break out laughing at any moment and lose the business.

But through all this, nobody said a word. I somehow maintained my composure and the other two men kept their eyes riveted on me the entire time. The whole thing was a little unnerving, but I managed to get through it.

Just as I was finishing up, the sleeper awoke. He looked a little startled and tried to act nonchalant, like he’d been with us the entire time.

The men thanked us for coming, and then the well-rested plant manager gave us a tour before we packed up and headed back on our return flight.

The cherry on the sundae was after all that, we didn’t get the business; the company chose another agency out of Atlanta.

It wasn’t my best presentation, nor was it a winning presentation, but it’s the one I remember most.

photo credit: Museum of Photographic Arts Collections Nicolaas Henneman Asleep, Lacock or Reading, England via photopin (license)

photo credit: Rob Hurson via photopin (license)