Friday, February 25, 2011

USA Today Writer Reminds Us What PR Person Should Do Before an Interview

Went to a lunch presentation yesterday about what is really Off the Record and came away reinforcing my opinion that nothing is. The conversation was set up by Ed Barks who is a well-known media trainer in DC and given at a Capitol Communicators' Group lunch. Ed gave definitions for each of the terms – OTR, deep background, not for attribution, etc. If it’s a writer you know really well and trust you could go OTR, but I would still recommend that a client not do it.

In this age of social media you can develop messages for clients and coach them, but reporters are smart and they know how to manipulate people. I know, I was one. I think it’s better to take the approach that anything you say will be made public. That way you’ll be more careful.

The most interesting presentation was by Donna Leinwand, a justice and crime reporter for USA Today. She reminded us that what your client says isn’t everything. Good reporters notice details and will write about them.

Think about where the interview is taking place, who escorts the reporter out of the building, and those final moments when everyone is relaxed and more likely to say something they don’t want too. Also remember you should be careful of the follow-up questions, sent by email or delivered by phone.

Here are a few of the PR faux pas that Donna mentioned:

• A senior executive was wearing mismatched socks and she put it into her profile of him. He called her up after it ran and was furious.

• If you don’t want people to know you smoke don’t do it. Another senior executive chomped on a cigar throughout an entire interview and then his wife called Donna after the piece ran complaining that he was trying to quit and she shouldn’t have written that.

• Donna interviewed a DEA official along with a Rolling Stone reporter in Amsterdam at a local coffee house (translation legal dispenser of marijuana). The Rolling Stone reporter lit up a joint and she mentioned it in her copy. As you can imagine, the DEA official was beside himself.

• Clear your desk or conference room table before an interview. I used to read everything on a CEO’s desk as he was talking – and yes it was all upside down.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Marketing 3.0 - Bring Back Real Creativity and Concise Messaging

Sometimes I am just astounded by how little attention is paid to messaging in presentations, brochures and other marketing efforts. At how many times I’ve seen the same pitch or argument repackaged with a different colored bow and called insight or "brand new."

Maybe it’s my advertising background, maybe it was the Harvard Business School, maybe it’s from journalism or perhaps it has come from years of trying to distill from what a client says and the materials they produce, what it is they are really trying to tell me. What is uniquely theirs that will make me buy from them or go to their event.

No matter what the source, in this age of messages flung at us with words, visuals, in emails – we all need clarity of vision, originality and most important simplicity.

There’s an ongoing discussion on one of the LinkedIn groups I belong to asking the question “How do you know when someone really doesn’t understand marketing?”
Well my answer is when they can’t sell me on three concise messages that tell me why I should care about their product, service or event, why it's different than everything else out there and give me compelling reasons why I should go out and buy it.

So for what it’s worth here are some examples of what I’ve seen lately from very smart people who could do much, much better.

1. Presentation that was a jumble of bullets – I went to a speech by a senior executive recently that was a PowerPoint presentation of pure bullets. Not a single visual emphasized a point – actually there were a couple of photos of the executive interacting with kids jammed in the middle somewhere. It was a total jumble of we’ve done this, this, this, and so much more but it’s your job to figure out exactly what that means. The three messages I took away? The executive supports a discipline he believes in, his organization is throwing gobs of money at improving it and forming a lot of committees none of which I really get or seem to have accomplished much.

2. Brochure whose title and graphic didn't market to the right audience. – This was a missed opportunity. The cover of a brochure is supposed to send me strong messages about why I should continue reading. This one basically announced its purpose and then had a colorful visual that would be very attractive to young children. Yet the brochure was aimed at senior marketing executives – people who would pony up a lot of money to support a non-profit that helps kids. It was a good reminder of a basic marketing premise - know your audience and remember what they care about and will motivate them. Use a visual and words that reinforce a message that will make them take notice.

3. Assuming your audience understands everything about your business.

I was reading an online brochure the other day that had many nice pictures and jumbles of text – about a product that is fairly new.

The trouble was it threw a ton of information at me telling me how successful the product launch was, and also informing me that the new and improved version would be even better. But there was so much data it gave me a headache. You could tell it was written by more than one person and the writers couldn't decide what was important so they just threw in everything they could think of. There were also lists and lists of events attached to the product with no explanations of what they were. Let’s go back to what I was told over and over as a young journalist which also applies directly to marketing. Don’t assume that your reader knows what you’re talking about. Explain your products or services as you would to a novice.

4. Event with incredibly compelling title that delivered none of what it promised – I went to this panel discussion because it had very impressive people talking and a great title that sold me – combining health care reform with another issue I care about. The trouble was I watched three speeches none of which addressed the title. It wasn’t even really referenced in what they said. I’m finding this happens more and more lately. People have figured out that a sexy headline draws traffic. Yippee. What they haven’t figured out is how to deliver on it.

Those of us who’ve seen “The Social Network” know that the Internet has become a repository for taking the ideas of others and changing the thought or example slightly – and pretending they are ours. What passes as creativity these days often comes from what Mark Zuckerberg got sued over - intellectual property theft. Of course most people don't sue, they may not even know their work was taken.

I cannot tell you how many blogs I read where someone is pontificating about a brilliant “new” idea, that I read 20 years ago, expressed in different words by a past guru who has long since retired to his or her own private island.

Once it’s online, everything is considered fair game. But what about real creativity – the kind that takes your breath away it’s so fresh and original? Can’t we have that back? In broadcast, if it weren’t for HBO, Showtime and some independent films I would believe that creativity is no longer possible.

So my point in all of this is we live in a very complicated world and are barraged daily with far more than we can process. As marketers, and communicators, we should be long past the days where an information dump is how we sell. Everything we say and write in our outreach efforts should be straightforward, clear and ours because if it’s not our products and services become a rehash of everything else that’s out there. And especially in these tough economic times - I need compelling reasons why I should listen, care and buy whatever it is you are selling.

Monday, February 7, 2011

There's a Gunman in the Building: How Discovery Communications Handled the Crisis

(Originally appeared in the IABC February 2011 Newsletter written by yours truly)

On September 1, 2010, James J. Lee, a militant environmentalist who had picketed Discovery Communications headquarters in downtown Silver Spring, MD in the past, entered its lobby and took three people hostage. Lee had a bomb strapped to him and threatened to blow up the building.

Last month, Michelle Russo, Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Communications for Discovery, shared her team’s experiences and lessons learned before an audience of more than 100 communications professionalat IABC/DC Metro's regular chapter meeting.

Russo said one of the first things she realized as the crisis unfolded, is that no amount of planning can prepare you for feeling personally threatened. Thus it is important to monitor your own reaction and that of your colleagues. Relying on a well-thought out Crisis Plan is important, but so is relying on your best professional instincts to guide your actions throughout the crisis.

Here are some of the other lessons learned from that day and its aftermath:

Prepare to Message in the Moment – Crisis communications plans are reviewed by many people who adapt messaging to what they’re comfortable with. But those carefully crafted messages – in a genuine crisis – are not always what you need. Russo realized that her team knew what to say and how to say it, so messages were developed on the spot and it worked.

Consider Not Talking to the Media Right Away - Within minutes, news of the gunman entering the building spread to local and national media. Russo and her team received calls almost immediately and reporters arrived in downtown Silver Spring. The team established their first priority was Discovery employees, not a media response. The communications team decided against talking to reporters until the situation was resolved. They relied on their track record of good relationships with the media and hoped reporters would understand later why their responsiveness was not at usual levels.

Assign a communications team bridge – Russo monitored the executive bridge, where Discovery’s global leaders were kept abreast of the situation. She suggested that it would have been helpful for the global communications team to have a bridge as well to keep information flowing to the company’s front-line communicators.

Consult Other Businesses in Your Community on Your Crisis Plan – Since the Discovery building was evacuated very quickly, many employees left house and car keys, bags and other items in their offices. Local organizations pitched in to help - from the hot dog vendor warning people not to go back into the building after lunch - to another large organization which assigned two staff people to help Discovery make sure its employees got home. Russo suggested, as a best practice, to set up a reciprocal business continuity agreement, in certain situations.

Planning a Global Celebration Helped Communications Run Smoothly - Earlier that year Discovery held a global celebration of its 25 th Anniversary which lasted a full week and required partnering and planning large scale logistics with offices around the world and helped instill a cohesive internal community that was invaluable on September 1.

Employees will want to share their experiences, give them guidance on how – Discovery’s approach to social media during the crisis was to respect its employees and the decisions they made. While they asked employees not to tweet, Facebook or communicate with press about updates during the crisis, they did not want to stop people from assuring their families and friends they were safe. When two of the three hostages decided they wanted to do media interviews employees were notified so they were not surprised when their colleagues were reliving the day via various media outlets