Category Archives: Journalism

Four Cheers for Reporters!

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The author (in white vest) being interviewed (by Kyle Jordan, professional journalist, with cameraman Stephen LeFranc) during the Deepwater Horizon spill, June 2010. Pensacola, FL.

If you read this blog, you know I’m a PR guy. And today, I am working with a new client. I’ll be providing a spokesperson media training session to three of the firm’s partners next week. I love doing media training for my clients. It’s a lovely marriage of my theatre background and my PR career. In a way, it’s analogous to directing a performance. It’s not a perfect metaphor, but there are similarities. More importantly, this process helps my clients become more effective spokespeople who understand how to help the reporters get what they need, which tends to result in better coverage for my clients and better stories for the journalists. Win-Win.

Anyway, part of the preparation process involves asking the trainees a few questions before the training day in order to gauge their experience, attitude and opinions about reporters. Armed with this knowledge, I am able to make better use of everyone’s time and customize the session to the needs of the individuals I’m training.

One of the questions is:

“What opinions do you have of journalists?”

As I was reviewing this client’s responses today, I asked myself, “How would I answer that?”

It’s quite simple and can be summed up in four points.

  1. I have genuinely liked more than 90 percent of the journalists I’ve worked with in the past 15+ years. They’re kind, curious, polite (but firm), hard-working and professional individuals. As for the other 10 percent: I’ll tell you about them over a beer sometime. They are the exception, not the rule.
  2. As a spokesperson and a PR representative, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had to end an interview prematurely because of a combative, rude or unprofessional journalist (and I’ve done hundreds of interviews, with reporters from at least a dozen countries around the world).
  3. These journalists have my respect because they’re doing an incredibly demanding job, most of them for very little pay, under the kind of nonnegotiable daily deadlines that would make most of us cringe.
  4. Most reporters have a largely thankless job. But they do it anyway because they believe in telling the story.

In that spirit, I’d like to tip my hat to all the journalists out there who are bravely facing the world with their inquisitive minds, their sharp pencils and their steno pads. I’ve enjoyed working with you (well, 90 percent of you) over the years. And I thank you sincerely for the job that you do. You’re great!

Hats off to reporters! Won’t you please join me? Thank a journalist today!

The Change Agent is Brian Sibley. You can follow him on twitter: @bsibley

3 Steps to a Great Marketing Strategy

I love a good road trip.

I try to take one at least once a year if I can. Road trips are exciting. There’s nothing like it, really … the thrill of the open road, the sense of possibility, good music, the freedom to stop along the way and check out a roadside attraction, or just to look out the window and admire the scenery. I roll the windows down, open the sunroof and let ‘er rip. (It helps that my car is really fun to drive.)

Running a marketing program is a lot like a road trip. The only trouble is, many people neglect to properly consider one of the critical components of the trip – The Map.

A map shows you where you are (Point A) and where you’re going (Point B, a.k.a. “Your Goal”). You wouldn’t set off on a road trip without at least some idea of where you were going and which roads will take you there. [Well maybe you would, but I certainly wouldn’t.] If you don’t know where Point B is, how will you know when you’ve arrived?

Without a clear strategy, all the tactics in the world won’t get you to your destination. Without a destination, you’re just aimlessly driving.

This is one way I have explained the difference between strategy and tactics, which are two deceptively simple concepts that are frequently misunderstood. The tactics are everything I described at the beginning of this post: the car, the freedom, the music, the things you pack in the trunk, the fuel in the tank. The strategy is the road map.

You first need to know why you’re going to Point B from Point A. The map won’t show you that answer, but you need to know why you’re going, because it will help you make other important choices along the way. The “why” is your mission.

You look at the map to plan out these critical things, the three steps to your strategy:

  1. Where you are. It seems basic, but you’d be surprised how many organizations don’t really know where Point A is when it comes to marketing. Some don’t even know where Point A is when it comes to their overall business. If you ask them where they are, they’ll say, “I’m here!” as if it’s self-evident.
  2. Where you’re going. Again, a surprising number of organizations are seemingly just out for a drive with no particular destination … and they wonder why they’re not getting anywhere. They know a lot of things about their current status, like how much fuel is in the tank (the organization’s financing and resources), the engine temperature and what song is playing on the radio (employee productivity and morale), the outside temperature and weather (market research, web traffic, social media metrics), what other cars are in their immediate vicinity (competitors), maybe even their current heading and bearing (those nebulous performance “metrics” we all impulsively track). Many of these things are useful when traveling. But not one of them will actually help you get closer to Point B unless Point B has been clearly identified.
  3. The routes available to you. Generally there’s more than one way to get from Point A to Point B. There are usually several options: The shortest route. The fastest route. The scenic route. The route that avoids bad traffic jams. You can take any of these routes you choose, and each has benefits and drawbacks. But you need to choose one. It’s probably best to select an alternate route as well, in case a bridge is washed out along the way.

When was the last time you thought about your marketing in this way? The road map is how you find your strategy. Without a strategy for getting to your destination, you’ll probably wind up hopelessly lost, even though you might be having a great time in the process. Developing a strategy doesn’t have to be a chore. It doesn’t have to take months or cost millions (although it can), but it is something you must do.

I’ve enjoyed the many times I’ve been fortunate enough to work with clients who knew that they needed to look at the map first, before they got behind the wheel, and asked for my help planning their route. Still, too many times I’ve seen organizations say “I have an awesome car and a full tank of gas! I’m on my way!” and sped off, burning fuel and rubber. They left without answering a fundamental question: “Do you know where you’re going?”

Where are you going?

(The Change Agent is Brian Sibley, principal of Sibley Communications. Follow him on Twitter @bsibley)

Jargon – Symptoms and Home Treatment

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On a conference call last week with a potential client, I was again confronted with a disease that plagues businesspeople: Excessive Use of Industry Jargon. This is a serious disease that often goes unreported. It’s time to bring it out into the open and talk about it.

Because the majority of my professional experience has been spent practicing PR and marketing communications, I’ve seen many cases of this condition. But today what I wanted to address are some of the possible reasons why it continues to plague businesspeople. It’s an insidious condition that infects people without regard to age, gender, level of education, race, color, or creed. You may even carry this disease yourself without realizing it. That’s OK, the diagnosis and cures are both simple and can be done in the privacy of your own home. But first:

Who is prone: this disease is borne out of either insecurity, or a kind of boastful pride (the same kind that infects schoolyard bullies and information hoarders). The afflicted believe that if they hold esoteric knowledge and don’t share it, then they are members of an elite club. They have heard (but misinterpreted) the phrase “knowledge is power,” and misunderstood it to mean that “knowledge is power … when that knowledge is not shared with others.” If that were true, then teachers would be unquestioningly the most powerful people in the world, and none of you would have learned anything in school.

Jargon and buzzwords are words and phrases that appear within organizations and industries and are used to describe products, services and unique characteristics of that group. The key thing to remember is that they are a form of shorthand, and do not instantly make sense to people outside the group. Everyone is guilty of this. It may be the most prevalent disease in business. For example,

  • Journalists talk about “ledes” instead of introductory sentences
  • Hotel people talk about “rack rates” instead of standard prices 
  • Ad sales people talk about “avails” instead of available space
  • Graphic designers talk about “mock-ups” instead of prototype designs
  • Marketing people talk about “The Creative” instead of the art concept

  • Biologists talk about “macro-invertebrates” instead of insects 
  • Corporate trainers talk about “staff augmentation” instead of … well, I still have no idea what this means in plain language

You get the point. Your industry has its own terms just like these. 

It is important to note that there are times when use of jargon is totally appropriate. Feel free to use it at meetings of other employees in your group who know these phrases and their meanings. But don’t use it in public. Don’t use it on a sales call. You might think it makes you sound like an expert, but it really just confuses your audience.

The Symptoms: self-detection is difficult. But you may have noticed these signs in others… Use of buzzwords, industry terms and three-letter acronyms (“TLA’s”). Audience members seem confused, isolated and distant. Quizzical looks from others following your talk.

Home Treatment: first, learn to think like a teacher. Observe your audience. Look for nonverbal cues – a furrowed brow, a confused expression, total silence on the other end of the phone – because your audience may not be confident enough to ask for clarification of your buzzwords and jargon. Ask simple questions like, “do you understand what I mean when I said ‘Price Point’?” And then of course you need to define the term and confirm understanding. (by the way, “price point” is just a lengthy way to say “price” …)

With effective home treatment, the prognosis is good. Anyone can learn to use clear, plain language to get their point across. If you manage to correct this condition, others will find you more personable, more effective and more likable.

And who doesn’t want that?

(The Change Agent is Brian Sibley. Follow him on Twitter @bsibley)

9 Ways a Theatre Degree Trumps a Business Degree

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Some of you may know this about me, some may not. Despite having spent the last 15 years as a PR & communications professional, my college degree is in theatre. I have never in my life taken a marketing class, or a journalism class, or a business class. Yet, by most measures, I’m enjoying a successful career in business.  “So what?” you ask… read on.

I was having a conversation with my friend Sara this week. She’s an actress. Like most actresses, she also has a Day Job that she works to pay the bills between acting jobs. This is the reality for most working actors in LA, New York and the other major centers of the entertainment industry. She was pointing out to me that she viewed her theatre background as a weakness in her Day Job career field, and that it was holding her back. She asked for my advice.

My advice? There IS no weakness in having a theatre background. There is only strength. Here are just a few skills that a theatre degree gave me that have served me enormously well in business:

  1. You have advanced critical thinking and problem solving skills: taking a script and translating it into a finished production is a colossal exercise in critical thinking. You have to make tremendous inferences and intellectual leaps, and you have to have a keen eye for subtle clues. (believe it or not, this is a skill that very few people have as finely honed as the theatre people I know. That’s why I listed it #1).
  2. You’re calm in a crisis: You’ve been on stage when somebody dropped a line and you had to improvise to keep the show moving with a smile on your face, in front of everyone. Your mic died in the middle of a big solo musical number. You just sang louder and didn’t skip a beat.
  3. You understand deadlines and respect them: Opening Night is non-negotiable. Enough said.
  4. You have an eye on audience perception: You know what will sell tickets and what will not. This is a very transferrable skill, and lots of theatre people underestimate this, because they think of theatre as an ART, and not as a BUSINESS. I frequently say (even to MBA-types) that theatre was absolutely the best business education I could have gotten. While the business majors were buried in their books and discussing theory, we were actually SELLING a PRODUCT to the PUBLIC. Most business majors can get through undergrad (and some MBA programs, even) without ever selling anything. Theater departments are frequently the only academic departments on campus who actually sell anything to the public. Interesting, isn’t it?
  5. You’re courageous: If you can sing “Oklahoma!” in front of 1,200 people, you can do anything.
  6. You’re resourceful: You’ve probably produced “The Fantasticks” in a small town on a $900 budget. You know how to get a lot of value from minimal resources.
  7. You’re a team player: You know that there are truly no small roles, only small actors. The show would fail without everyone giving their best, and even a brilliant performance by a star can be undermined by a poor supporting cast. We work together in theatre and (mostly) leave our egos at the stage door. We truly collaborate.
  8. You’re versatile: You can probably sing, act, dance. But you can also run a sewing machine. And a table saw. And you’ve probably rewired a lighting fixture. You’ve done a sound check. You’re good with a paintbrush. You’re not afraid to get your hands dirty for the benefit of the show. In short, you know how to acquire new skills quickly.
  9. You’re flexible: you’ve worked with some directors who inspired you. Others left you flat, but you did the work anyway. Same goes with your fellow actors, designers and stagehands… some were amazing and supportive, others were horrible and demoralizing to work with (we won’t name names). You have worked with them all. And learned a little something from every one of them.

These are the top reasons I’ve found my theatre degree to be a great background for a business career. What are yours?

(The Change Agent is Brian Sibley. Follow him on Twitter @bsibley)

Life Mirrors Art

1. On December 17, 2003, satirical newsweekly The Onion, “America’s Finest News Source” published this story.
2. Today, July 18, 2006, more than 30 months later, The New York Times published a news piece about the same issue. (Note: The link to the NY Times requires free registration).
Question: Is this a case of life mirroring art, or art mirroring life?