Category Archives: Public Relations

Pick Two

“Fast, Cheap, Good: Pick Two.” Intersection_sign

A former colleague had a triangular graphic posted on the wall of his office, similar to the one here. At each corner of the Triangle was one of those three words: Fast, Cheap, and Good. I’ve never forgotten the valuable lesson. It’s true in my field as it is in any other. In the relentless pursuit of balancing the quality/economy/speed equation, we have to remember that one of those will always be secondary.

You CAN have something Fast and Cheap, but it isn’t going to be very Good. (Think McDonald’s. Or cheap Chinese-made toys. Or cheap, Chinese-made toys from McDonald’s.)

You CAN have something Fast and Good, but it isn’t going to be Cheap. (Think about the time you needed a plumber at midnight. In a snowstorm. On Saturday.)

And lastly, You CAN have something Cheap and Good, but it isn’t going to be Fast. (This one always reminds me of pro-bono graphic design and creative services… “I’ll get to it when I can.”)

If somehow you can manage to deliver all three of these simultaneously, you’ll be well on your way to changing the world.

 

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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)

11 People to Unfollow on Twitter today

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Let the record show that I am about to write a Listicle*. The internet is rife with articles on “Who to Follow on Twitter” but I’ve seen scant evidence regarding the contrarian view. Since I generally prefer the contrarian view, I offer the following.

I did this exercise recently, and was sharing my process with Brendan Lewis, who shares in my love of all things snarky, especially when it involves Social Media. He encouraged me to write it up. So you can thank him if it seems helpful. (Note: If it’s not helpful, please direct all complaints to: Goldman Sachs, 200 West Street, New York City.)

Specifically, who should you unfollow? Unfollow these people, and enjoy a Twitter feed with substantially less narcissism, solipsism and self-promotion. Read on:

  1. Unfollow anyone who claims “guru” status of anything. Do I need to explain why? Same goes for “raconteur” and “diva” and some others. If you have to SAY that you’re a guru, odds are you are not. These words are pretentious when self-applied.
  2. Unfollow anyone who lists “running” in their profile. While I generally have nothing against athletes, people who call themselves “runners” bug the crap out of me. There are people who go for a run. There are people who run marathons. But people who identify as “Runners” tend to be self-important types who never played team sports or don’t realize that you CAN play team sports after high school. Crossfitters and triathletes, this means you, too.
  3. Unfollow anyone who unironically retweets Gary Vaynerchuk, Peter Shankman, or Brian Solis. If you MUST follow these guys yourself, do so only for comic value, because these guys actually believe that they are God’s Gift. In reality they exist largely in a feedback loop of their own creation. Same goes for Michael Brito, Jeremiah Owyang, David Armano, and Chris Pirillo.
  4. Unfollow people who use the phrase “content marketing” in their profile or in their tweets. They heard this buzzword recently and decided to catch the wave. This wave will have crested and crashed in six to 12 months. Something else will take its place. Simply “marketing” is OK.
  5. Unfollow anyone who is a self-proclaimed “thought leader” immediately. (For more information, see #1 above). As Bob Dylan said — at least apocryphally —  “Don’t follow leaders.”
  6. Unfollow most PR people. They’re easy to find: their agency name usually appears in their twitter profile (firm names like Edelman, Waggener Edstrom [a.k.a “WaggEd”], Shandwick, Burson, etc.) Most of these folks don’t do anything on twitter but parrot their clients’ messages anyway, and talk about their regimen for training for the upcoming Metro Half-Marathon and Wine Festival (see #2 above).
  7. Unfollow anyone who says on their twitter profile that they’re “gluten free,” or “paleo,” or ”vegan” … these folks are compelled to share their quotidian food choices globally. You don’t need to know, really. It isn’t that interesting.
  8. Unfollow anyone who uses more than two hashtags in their twitter profile. #youre #doing #it #wrong #jackwagon #stop #trying #to #draw #attention #to #yourself
  9. Unfollow anyone who lists their Myers-Briggs personality type in their profile. I can only assume that this is a carryover from online dating sites. What gives? If you’re an INFJ, shouldn’t you be reading a book with your cat anyway instead of managing your Twitter account? Get off the internet! It belongs to us ESTPs anyway!
  10. Unfollow people who claim to have written “bestselling books” that you have never heard of. Authors who have actually written bestselling books generally don’t need to claim authorship of same on their twitter profiles. Having written a book that’s #46 in Amazon’s category Business> Business & Investing> Management & Leadership> Management> Marketing> Digital & Interactive Marketing> Social Media> Does not qualify as a bestseller. For a list of Bestselling authors, see Publisher’s Weekly or The New York Times. J.K. Rowling is a bestselling author. So is John Grisham. So are Bill Gates and Sheryl Sandberg. Unfollow authors who aren’t in that category.
  11. Unfollow any remaining mommy bloggers. That thing was so 2008.

Once you’ve unfollowed these people (if there’s anyone left in your feed), you’ll find that it probably contains interesting things about the world you live in or the industry in which you work. It might even contain things of real intellectual value. When you unclutter your feed from the narcissists and self-promoters, you can follow things of genuine interest. Isn’t that what a tool like Twitter should be used for anyway?

(Disclaimer/Warning: Following the advice in this post may negatively impact your Klout score. But if you’ve read this far, it’s a safe bet you don’t care.)

And now, gentle reader, I eagerly await your vitriol.

*Listicle, n. – a portmanteau of “List” and “article” … get it?

PR folks: Would you represent Blagojevich?

I was asked a question this morning: “Would you represent Rod Blagojevich?” This brings up a very interesting point for PR people of all kinds. The troubled Illinois Governor is in the news again, this time because he’s skipping out on his state impeachment proceedings, which begin today. The stated reason for his absence? He’s upset that the rules of the state government prevent him from calling any witnesses to his defense. He’s annoyed by this detail, and is taking his case to the Court of Public Opinion: in this case Larry King Live, and other national broadcast outlets in New York.

As for the legality of anything Blagojevich may or may not have done, the courts and the senate will determine. In the Court of Public Opinion, the governor has decided that his only option remaining is self-defense. If you’ve been watching the news in the last three months, chances are that you have some opinion about his guilt or innocence. His appearance on Larry King Live tonight will either reinforce those opinions, or cause people to re-evaluate.

Regardless, the governor, guilty or innocent, is to be commended for his decision to talk to the American public about his side of the story. If he had acted sooner, he might not be in such a deficit of public approval. People expect a quick response these days, because they know they can get one. When a response is slow, people tend to presume guilt or assume the subject is being evasive.

Now back to the initial question: “Would you represent him?”

I believe that everyone is entitled to a competent defense. Very much like defense attorneys represent accused criminals every day, PR people can find themselves in the position to represent individuals or companies that have been accused of doing bad things.

If you were accused of a crime (regardless of your guilt or innocence), would you not want an attorney to represent you in the Court of Law? Someone with deep knowledge of the workings of the legal system who could present a case on your behalf?

Why should it be any different with the Court of Public Opinion?

What would you do?

On Public Relations

I visited Western Washington University‘s College of Business & Economics today, to speak to a group of students taking a class on Integrated Marketing Communications. The subject of my “lecture” (to use the academic phrase) was Public Relations. I covered a bit about the history of PR, how the media works and spent the majority of the time focusing on the Post-Media World.

Using the recent Oxfam vs. Starbucks kerfuffle on YouTube, we learned that in the age of the internet (in the Post-Media World), entertainment is far more compelling than straight facts. The consensus among the students was that the Starbucks response, while factual and straightforward (and speedy, to their credit), was less than compelling, mainly due to the monotonous spokesperson. The Oxfam video, while clearly sensationalist and one-sided, was, actually, entertaining.

Could Starbucks have improved their response by Putting Howard Schultz on YouTube instead of the forgettable executive who appeared? I would argue that they should have gone with Schultz. He’s known to be a good speaker, and would have lent an air of seriousness to the Oxfam accusations.

To any of the students who were in class today, or anyone else reading this, I’d ask: “What would you have done?”

Thanks for being such a great audience, and I appreciate your comments.

Rummy-Nation …

Walter Pincus wrote in yesterday’s Washington Post about a $10 million per year bid that’s been released by the Pentagon that “calls for extensive monitoring of U.S. and Middle Eastern media in an effort to promote more positive coverage of news from Iraq.”

Rumsfeld has said many times (including earlier this week … see yesterday’s post on this blog) that he’s cranky about how much bad news comes out of Iraq. He often cites that the troops get far more bad press about things like Abu Ghraib and Marine soldier misconduct than they do about good things that happen like the recent announcement about the Medal of Honor recipient.

Donald, if you’re reading this (and I’m sure some one is), first of all: does this surprise you? It should come as no surprise to anyone that bad news sells a lot more papers than good news. Just pick up any newspaper in America. The stories about fuzzy puppies and acts of heroism are almost ALWAYS buried somewhere other than the front page.

Bad news sells.

You can’t censor the bad news to try to manipulate the public into believing that Iraq is going smoothly.

But you’re going to try. And in doing so, you’re going to waste $20 million. We’re not buying it, Donald.

And that goes for you, too. Dubya.

As of today: 2642 American deaths in Iraq.

Bad news, no matter how you look at it.

Ethics in PR

Anyone have any experience with PR agencies? I’ve worked for PR agencies before, and now I’m in a leadership position for a marketing firm’s PR “department” … for lack of a better word. The reason I ask, is because I recently started working with a client who fired their PR firm. The reasons for their decision to fire aren’t germane to this discussion, but as I review the materials generated by this firm for my new client, I’m struck by the lengths to which many agencies seem to be willing to go in order to generate billable activity. Having worked for two similar agencies in the past, I’m well aware of the process, but I never had the clarity on it that I have now. My current situation is very different. I’m essentially a one-man operation as a PR practitioner within this operation, although I have some support from my boss (the company president who’s a very original thinker and visionary) and a summer intern (a bright kid with a great attitude and willingness to learn). In any case, back to the Fired Firm. Their documents are very formulaic, chock full of superlatives, PR-speak and jargon (“gold-plated list of customers” is an actual phrase from a company information document they wrote) and generally very generic. It is almost as though they fed the company name and a few key facts into a PR Document Package Generator that spit out templated documents with a company logo. Or worse, it looks like much of the content could have been plagiarized from somewhere. I saw no real evidence of original thinking, original wording, or a sense that the PR firm had even listened to the client and determined their actual needs. It seems to me that the client’s valuable financial resources have not been put to the most effective use up until this point.
This reminds me of an anecdote a former agency co-worker told me once. He tells a story of a colleague who was budgeting for a client’s project, and she had estimated 8 hours of billable time to write a press release. “EIGHT HOURS?!” he remarked. “What a ripoff! Let me tell you what I can do in eight hours: write a press release, play a round of golf, take a nap, answer some email, and be back in the office for a quick round of edits to the release I drafted that morning. It doesn’t take me eight hours to write the thing.” His colleague was estimating eight hours, at a billable rate of $180/hour to write a press release. That’s almost $1500, people. That’s a might expensive first draft, by anyone’s account.
So ask yourself, if you’re ever in the position of working with a PR agency: Are they listening to me? Are they giving me a standard list of “PR Activities” for a prescribed “PR Program?” Are they providing value, and getting results? Or are they just looking busy?

From where I sit, it looks an awful lot like the Fired Firm was mostly looking busy.

Unfortunately, many in my profession have seen PR and communications as a career where they can make a lot of money. It hasn’t attracted the country’s best. PR and advertising are perhaps the only two remaining professional services that require no advanced education or certification in order to find work. Lawyers and accountants require advanced schooling. Financial advisors and brokers and even real estate professionals require continuing ed. No such training exists for the communications/marketing pro.

I’m no advocate for mandatory certification in our industry, indeed, my career would have been very short if a certain degree were required. I have a Drama degree, and I’ve often been heard saying that nine times of ten, I’d rather hire a liberal arts major than a communications or business major for an entry-level job in this field. But it does give me pause to think that perhaps a greater level of service could be attained if more young PR and marketing pros went through some ethics training, at the very least, instead of billing their clients $1500 to write a press release.

As the chief used to say on “Hill Street Blues:” Hey, be careful out there.
Ciao for now …