A Fond Farewell to PR

After a 35-year career in public relations, including 18 years with my own business, I’m about to retire. Effective May 1, 2020, I will no longer be handling consulting or writing engagements – and I’m really looking forward to trying some new things.

Cleaning out client files earlier this month was like a trip down memory lane. I was reminded of a panoply of campaigns, crises and interviews on behalf of clients representing a wide range of industries. It has been quite a journey, and I wouldn’t trade it for any other career.

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I started my PR career in the mid-1980s. After working for two international non-profit organizations, I decided in 1990 that the time was right to transition to the for-profit sector on either the agency or corporate side.

Having what I thought was valuable experience working with reporters throughout the world, a terrific mentor who really understood the media relations business and a just-completed graduate degree in communication and management, I was brimming with optimism and ready to take the next step.

As so often happens in life, however, things didn’t work out exactly as I envisioned.

For starters, I had the misfortune of trying to make this transition in the midst of an economic recession. It also didn’t take long for me to clue in that the for-profit sector was generally somewhat skeptical of my non-profit experience, and some considered it second tier. I was determined to prove myself, but how?

I attempted to arrange meetings with people in PR jobs to which I aspired, both on the corporate and agency side. Some were incredibly gracious, encouraging and generous with their time – while others wouldn’t give me the time of day.

For those who took time to hear my story and offer career advice, I consistently received feedback that I needed agency or news media experience to be considered for a corporate communications position or for a spot with a large PR firm.

While that wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear, I nevertheless took their advice to heart and started working as a correspondence for the Daily Herald, a newspaper covering Chicago suburbs. My compensation was a whopping $35 per article, which included my time attending meetings, conducting interviews and writing stories about city government, local schools and law enforcement.

Actually, I would have done this for free because the by-lines were far more valuable to me than whatever fee the paper paid for my stories. It also helped me see life through the eyes of a reporter.

After much persistence, I also landed a job with a small advertising agency near Chicago. It didn’t pay much but provided that all-important client experience. A little over a year later, I was hired by one of the largest PR firms in the Southeast as an account executive. A mutual acquaintance put me in touch with the agency’s president at the exact time he was looking for someone with my background and experience.

Some would say that was luck, but as a Christian I know there is no such thing as luck, and that it is God who opens and closes doors in our lives and careers. My task was to make myself as marketable as possible, be sensitive to His leading and knock on doors to see which ones opened.

In the years that followed, I worked with a talented group of 80 agency colleagues, serving local, regional and national clients and helping manage campaigns that included Tennessee’s year-long bicentennial celebration. I also was part of our agency’s media training and new business teams.

Four-and-a-half years later, a rising ad agency in the Nashville area recruited me to head up its PR division, which I did for four years before venturing out on my own.

On April 8, 2002, I launched ABC&D Communications (each letter stands for a family member: Andra, Brooke, Carolyn and Don). My goal that first year was to survive and earn enough to pay the bills. Much to my surprise, I immediately landed a huge piece of retainer business, followed by two additional retainer clients in the next few months along with several projects. By the end of the year, my business was booming.

When I started ABC&D Communications, a friend who had his own ad agency advised me to “prepare for success.” I thought he was being kind and encouraging, and frankly was skeptical that I would have much success that first year. He turned out to be right on target.

For the past 18 years, I’ve been blessed to have served well over 100 clients through my firm, as well as many others through my previous agency work, and to participate in a number of speaking engagements at professional conferences, webinars and podcasts.

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In 2012, I wrote a post commenting on an article titled “10 skills the PR pro of 2022 MUST have.” We are now less than two years away from 2022, but my top 10 list of traits and skills for PR success are, I believe, as relevant today as when I wrote about them eight years ago. In fact, I believe they are timeless keys to PR success. Here they are, as I described them in 2012:

Integrity. Yes, I know there are unscrupulous PR people just as there are unscrupulous people in other walks of life. But sooner or later the truth emerges, and the bad guys get exposed and discredited. If reporters, clients or customers don’t trust your word or character, you’d better find something else to do because you aren’t going to have much of a career in PR in 2012 or 2022.

A positive attitude. Being a positive, energetic person with a can-do attitude will always go a long way. The world is full of people who can give you a dozen reasons why something can’t be done or won’t work. And sometimes they’re right, but often it’s because they’ve allowed themselves to become negative and cynical in their thinking, always seeing the glass as half empty rather than half full.

Relational skills. Being a team player and having the ability to relate well to people at all levels will never go out of style. It’s one of the most important traits of successful people, whether in PR or in other disciplines.

A knack for networking. Being a resource and connector for others will pay off, even if there’s not an immediate personal benefit. From assisting reporters or bloggers looking for good sources to building relationships with key influencers in the community and industry, time invested in people is never wasted.

Balance. Know how to strike the balance between needing to get information out quickly vs. ensuring the information is correct and credible. If you wait too long, in today’s 24/7 news cycle you may miss out on opportunities. But a quick response must also be a responsible one, and if you want to keep your credibility make sure the information you disseminate is accurate to the best of your ability.

Strategic thinking. The ability to do effective planning and see the big picture separates the strategists from the order takers. Effective PR people are able to juggle multiple tasks simultaneously without losing focus on the long-term objective. Those who think tactically (what needs to be done) without also thinking strategically (why we are doing something and how we should go about it) will have a hard time advancing in PR.

A cool head under pressure. Thinking quickly, clearly and calmly under pressure—and helping others do so in a crisis—will always earn respect among peers and leaders alike.

Flexibility. A PR person’s day can change in an instant, and you need to be able to shift priorities at a moment’s notice.

A yearn to learn. A broad-based college education that incorporates working knowledge of PR principles, business, journalism, marketing and the social sciences is a good start, but learning should be a life-long activity. Keeping up with industry trends through blogs, conferences, industry publications, etc., will keep your thinking fresh and make you a valuable resource to others.

The ability to communicate clearly, concisely and relevantly, regardless of the medium being used. A good PR person understands the audience he or she is targeting and what’s important to them. Knowing how to adapt a story to a particular niche and medium—and how to speak to people in a meaningful way— has always been vital to success. As audiences get more and more segmented, the demand for this skill will only increase.

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As I write this final post and start a new phase of life, I am grateful for the journey and excited about the future.

I want to thank my clients for entrusting their businesses to me for their PR needs; my colleagues for all I have learned from them; the reporters who have considered my pitches and done some first-rate stories about my clients; readers of my blog who have shared thoughts and insights over the years; and my family for being a constant source of support and encouragement.

Most of all, I want to give thanks to the the Lord Jesus Christ for blessing me with such a wonderful career and for His unfailing faithfulness to me.

Don Beehler is a PR consultant, strategist and writer who helps clients communicate effectively, manage their reputations and build their brands so they can advance their business objectives. Prior to founding ABC&D Communications, he held management positions with advertising/public relations agencies in Chicago and Nashville.

photo credit: symphony of love Author Unknown If you are not willing to change, then don’t expect your life to via photopin (license)

photo credit: wwarby Desert Roadvia flickrand photopin (license)

 

 

Three Mistakes That Can Derail Agency Publicity Success

I Love PROne of the lessons I’ve learned in my PR career is that making the right pitch to the right reporter at the right time is vital to publicity success.

It’s also important to know how the news media operate and have a good understanding of what makes 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.

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

Mistake #1. Failing to do adequate research.

Whether you’re dealing with your local paper, an industry publication or a national media outlet, you need to take the time to find out which person covers the particular area you are interested in pursuing.

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.

Here’s an example of helpful information such research can uncover. In the “Contract Notes” section of a media directory for print and broadcast outlets, a computer/high tech reporter notes the following:

  • Works from home, but prefers all materials be sent to the paper.
  • Prefers to be contacted by e-mail and hates follow up calls.
  • Interested in the ideas behind technology, not the products.

This is helpful information to know before you contact that reporter.

Mistake #2. Wasting reporters’ time with irrelevant pitches.

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?”

Mistake #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 a sure way to get your information trashed and lose credibility with the news media.

Craft your pitch as objectively as possible emphasizing its news, trend or human interest aspect, and 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 for your agency and clients.

 photo credit: Cloudberry Communications via photopin cc

 

The Art of Dealing with Critics

In The Art of War Sun Tzu, a Chinese military strategist and philosopher, makes this astute observation:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Critics can, at times, seem like enemies of an organization and the marketplace a battlefield.

Knowing your organization—namely the mission, vision and values it holds near and dear—and being committed to defending them is what makes companies authentic. There is a cost to standing firm in the face of aggressive opposition, but there’s an even greater long-term cost for failing to do so.

Understanding what makes your critics tick is vital, which is why it’s important to learn all you can about them by discerning their perceptions of the company, understanding what motives them and gaining insight into their beliefs.

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With this information in hand, it’s time to consider how an organization can effectively deal with its critics.

One of the best pieces of public relations advice I’ve ever received came early in my career from a vice president of corporate communications. His employer, a large international business, was routinely the target of criticism, so he had a lot of experience in this area.

  • His advice was simple yet spot-on: Divide your critics into two groups, the reasonable and the unreasonable.

GROUP ONE, the reasonable critics, are people who have legitimate concerns and make constructive criticism in an effort to bring about improvement. Work with them.

These are people with whom the organization should try to find common ground and accommodate whenever possible, provided the organization doesn’t compromise its values. If it has made a mistake, apologize and take corrective action. Sometimes, reasonable critics can even be won over to become allies and ultimately fans. They can make us better if we listen to them and work with them to find win-win solutions.

GROUP TWO, the unreasonable critics, are never going to be happy no matter what you do.  Ignore them.

These critics will be suspicious of your motives if you try to work with them, and any action you take will be found to be deficient in some way. Regardless of what they might say, they have no interest in having a dialogue about the issues and working with you. Their operative word is “more” – and ironically, no matter how much “more” your organization offers, it will never be enough. These critics thrive on attention and intimidating those with whom they disagree.

You can waste a lot of time and energy dealing with unreasonable critics, and at the end of the day nothing will have changed.

Plus, by trying to dialogue with them, you risk elevating their profile and giving them more credibility than they deserve. This is especially true in the age of social media, where critics can be relentless and exceedingly nasty online. They tie up company resources with endless debates and accusations, and no matter what you say or do, they’ll still criticize you.

An initial response to a complaint or inquiry is appropriate, especially if it is made through social media where anyone online can see what has been said. Being unresponsive makes a company look bad and uncaring, and silence can give the perception of guilt. At the same time, there are advocacy groups and bloggers who relish yanking corporate chains and putting companies in a spin.

Once you have attempted to engage a critic and found that person to be unreasonable, the best thing to do is simply ignore future criticism from that individual or group. Not only will you save a lot of time and grief, but posting a rational response that is rebuffed by an irrational person may actually help your organization.

Handling the situation with a courteous reply that doesn’t gloss over the complaint is likely to give reasonable readers a favorable impression of your company and help them see the unreasonable critic for what he/she really is—unreasonable.

Don Beehler is a public relations consultant in Franklin, Tennessee.

Image by Niek Verlaan from Pixabay

Chick-fil-A’s Concession to Political Correctness Is a PR Train Wreck

Chick-fil-A has long been one of my favorite restaurant chains. It’s a cheerful, wholesome and clean environment, where the employees seem happy to be there and eager to serve customers. The food is pretty good, too. Chick-fil-A also has been a terrific corporate citizen and good neighbor, helping local charities and giving out free food when natural disasters strike.

There is much to admire about the company, which has risen to become one of the top fast-food chains in America despite being closed on Sundays. It has been a model of how a corporation that adheres to Christian values—and that creates a family environment while being inclusive and welcoming of everyone—can garner incredible loyalty that translates into financial success.

A couple weeks ago I stopped by one of our local Chick-fil-A restaurants, and the place was packed with people who were greeting each other and happily sharing experiences. A portion of that evening’s proceeds was going to help a person in need. It was an uplifting experience just being there, which is part of the reason for company’s strong attraction to so many of us who share founder Truett Cathy’s faith and values.

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Truett Cathy, who passed away several years ago, was the real deal. After reading an article about how his Christian values guided him through life, I wrote a brief letter expressing my appreciation for his testimony and faithfulness. A short time later I received a copy of his book, How Did You Do It, Truett?, with a personal inscription thanking me for my note and listing Proverbs 22:1: “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.”

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In 2012, a boycott of Chick-fil-A bombed badly. As I noted in a blog post, which was subsequently picked up by Baptist Press, the boycott was a classic PR backfire that scorched the boycotters when Gov. Mike Huckabee launched a special Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day. Millions responded to show their support of the company, resulting in a huge day of sales for Chick-fil-A.

Billy Graham and Rick Warren were among scores of leaders who joined Gov. Huckabee in defending the embattled chain. Ted Cruz, who had just won the Republican nomination in the Texas Senate run-off race, served Chick-fil-A at his victory party. A major Wendy’s franchise owner put, “We stand with Chick-fil-A” on his restaurants’ signs.

Chick-fil-A didn’t have to lift a finger to defend itself; instead, a panoply of supporters did that for the chain.

Seven years later, it’s a much different story. Chick-fil-A is once again in the midst of a firestorm of controversy, but this time it’s from some of its most loyal customers—the ones who have consistently supported Chick-fil-A and made the fast-food chain the success it is today.

Many feel betrayed by the company’s recent announcement that it will discontinue corporate donations to faith-based organizations like the Salvation Army, apparently because they believe in the biblical definition of marriage between one biological man and one biological woman. This, of course, is offensive to the LGBTQ community, which portrays such beliefs as bigoted and discriminatory, even though the Salvation Army serves all people in need.

Chick-fil-A’s announcement has been met with widespread disappointment and anger.

In a statement the Salvation Army said it is saddened by Chick-fil-A’s decision, noting, “When misinformation is perpetuated without fact, our ability to serve those in need, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, religion or any other factor, is at risk. We urge the public to seek the truth before rushing to ill-informed judgment.”

Gov. Huckabee called the decision “such a disappointment,” saying that after being so successful it was bewildering that the company would “surrender to the bullies.” He warned that the implications are “far broader” than Chick-fil-A. Similar sentiments were expressed throughout the Christian community.

Christian Post contributor Mat Staver, an attorney and chairman of Liberty Counsel Action, reported that one of the places Chick-fil-A is now funding is Covenant House, which he alleges is an LGBTQ activist and “takes girls to abortion clinics.”

[Update: Townhall.com reports that as far back as 2017, the Chick-fil-A Foundation donated to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which designates conservative organizations like the Family Research Council as “hate groups.”

As noted in a Washington Times article, the gunman who attacked FRC in 2012 told the FBI that he found the organization on SPLC’s list of “anti-gay groups.” FRC President Tony Perkins said in a statement, “Not only has Chick-fil-A abandoned donations to Christians groups including the Salvation Army, it has donated to one of the most extreme anti-Christian in America.”]

While CEO Dan Cathy insists that the company was not giving into the demands of LGBTQ activists, the perception of Chick-fil-A’s actions certainly seem to be a step in that direction.

The loss of confidence in Chick-fil-A was further eroded by Tim Tassopoulos, president and COO, who was quoted as saying, “as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are.”

So who, exactly, is Chick-fil-A these days? A whole lot of people would like clarity.

As has been demonstrated time and time again, appeasing anti-Christian groups leads to nothing but further demands. Just ask the Boy Scouts, who are now reportedly considering bankruptcy.

Or, try making friends with ADWEEK’s Rigel Cable, who writes, “Dear Chick-fil-A: The LGBTQ+ Community Is Not Behind Your Latest Publicity Stunt.” It turns out that stopping corporate donations to what Mr. Cable terms as “anti-LGBTQ+ organizations” and instead giving funds to an alleged LGBTQ activist organization just isn’t enough to make him a customer.

There may be exceptions, but for the most part people like Mr. Cable are as likely to eat at a Chick-fil-A restaurant as the people who buy Nike’s new Colin Kaepernick shoes are to purchase patriotic American apparel.

Chick-fil-A could never do enough to placate the LGBTQ community at large because they will not accept anything less than total capitulation of its values and full embrace of the LGBTQ agenda. Tolerance of other views is a foreign concept to them, and it’s hard to imagine them being a significant part of the company’s customer base.
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In going down the path of being all things to all people, Chick-fil-A’s leadership has made the mistake that has caused so many brands to stumble, and in the process lose their identity and distinctiveness. The result: Sarcastic skepticism from the LGBTQ community at large, and a sense of acute disappointment and betrayal by scores of its traditional-values customers.

Forbes contributor Dawn Ennis, who reports on the fight for transgender equality and other LGBTQ issues, writes that the company is now getting “grilled by both sides.”

It appears Chick-fil-A took this action to make it easier to expand into new markets, but the opposite is likely to happen. Now that LGBTQ activists, abortion-rights advocates, far-left college professors and liberal news media outlets have seen a crack in the company’s values’ foundation, new demands will surface, which Chick-fil-A will have to meet—or else.

It’s a slippery slope. Detractors will demand more and more, until the company’s culture is no longer recognizable. If Chick-fil-A resists any of these demands, the backlash and outcry will be enormous. They know that if they can get the company to blink once, they can get it to blink again.

At the same time, it will be far more difficult to rally support from people who feel they’ve been burned. Chick-fil-A still has a significant amount of brand equity and goodwill, but the reality is that a lot of us just don’t feel the way we used to about the brand.

How did Truett do it? It wasn’t by caving to political correctness and taking for granted the patronage of people who have made Chick-fil-A such a great American success story.

Don Beehler is a public relations consultant in Franklin, Tennessee.

 

 

Keeping Your Agency in the News: The Drip, Drip, Drip Approach

My first job in public relations was with an international nonprofit organization. I was blessed to have a terrific mentor, a former newspaper editor who took me under his wing and really helped me understand the news business. He taught me how to think and write like a reporter, and how work with them successfully on stories about our organization.

We had a small staff and typically were overwhelmed with requests and things to do. All too often, we were putting out fires. We did very little proactive media work to generate publicity, except for some of the large events we held.

At the time, my idea of media relations was when the phone rang we answered it, and if it was a reporter calling we did our best to be helpful.

When I went to work for a large PR firm years later, I was immediately introduced to the concept of generating publicity for our clients by coming up with ideas and angles for what would hopefully be positive coverage.

And, by the way, the clients expected ongoing coverage, so we had to be persistent and sometimes creative in coming up with story ideas and new angles.

Consistency is an important part of an effective PR program, and finding ways to keep your agency front and center is vital to a program’s overall success.

  • Think of it as the drip, drip, drip approach to keeping you in the news.

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One of the most galling things for agency principals is to watch from the sidelines as competitors are quoted and featured in the news media. Even worse, agencies that were not part of the story may actually have more experience and expertise than the agency that received the coverage. Of course, the impression people get is that the folks quoted are the cream of the crop in their profession, which may or may not be true.

It’s no accident that some agencies get more ink and air time than others. It’s because they have an intentional, ongoing, strategic effort to get their names in the marketplace, and they have made PR a priority.

With that in mind, here are some publicity topics to help keep your agency in the news:

  • Commentary about marketing trends/current issues
  • Sponsorships
  • Community involvement
  • Events
  • New clients, employees, awards, publications
  • New services, office expansion, etc.
  • Mentoring programs
  • Pro bono work
  • Guest columns in the local paper or business journal
  • Articles in relevant industry publications
  • Human interest stories about employees (unusual hobbies, their community involvement, humanitarian work, etc.)

The effort is worth it. A consistent PR program can help agencies not only get more exposure to important audiences and build their brands, but also compliment their new business efforts.

photo credit: wuestenigel News via photopin (license)

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.

photo credit: All Reverse Mortgage Check mark via photopin (license)

 

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.

photo credit: Cloudberry Communications via photopin cc

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)