Archive for the ‘public relations’ Category

Media Companies Mess Up PR… And It Matters

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

IMG_0205Unveiling a new logo ranks high among communications challenges. Logos for established businesses contain emotion, which, upon a change, can spill into reaction, especially online in the era of social media outrage.

We have worked with clients in these situations to minimize controversy and maximize explanation and context. Even then, we have prepared clients for rough waters in at least the short-term in an environment where change stirs emotion and everyone feels empowered to take a turn as an art critic.

In a fragile business like media, a logo change should be handled strategically, ensuring that the organization making the change can speak for itself, carefully and deliberately to its audiences about why the change is necessary.

Gannett, owner of the Detroit Free Press and hundreds of newspapers and news websites across the country, took a different approach, at least in Detroit, among other markets nationally. The company changed the iconic Free Press logo to one mirroring its flagship, but non-local, USA Today branding, at least online. In the Detroit market, this is a jarring change, as the Olde English style, shared by the Tigers baseball team, is considered part of the regional identity.

Rather than execute what we would call a “change communications strategy,” which borrows from the fundamentals of crisis communications, corporate overlords sent a morning email to staff (just days after making a change in the executive editor’s office) and ordered the mandated move to go into effect online. In what should have been anticipated as a worst case scenario, it was brought to the public’s attention via social media posts by journalists at competing outlets, as chronicled by this item by Poynter, the nonprofit journalism educational institution.

Notably, there has been no communication from the company to the Free Press’ audience about the change. As we have written here many times before, including when Gannett ordered layoffs late last year, reducing the Free Press’ newsgathering resources without even making an effort to reassure its audiences, the corporations that run media ironically don’t practice the most core principles of PR.

Was this change the right decision? Will Gannett be able to grow revenue by piggybacking off the USA Today brand in a parochial market like Detroit? Does USA Today have stronger identity than a local brand that dates back to 1831? The future of an institution rests on the answers to those questions. This is a decision more than about font and color. It’s part of the future of a resource this community, and every community, needs, whether it’s in print, online or whatever is next. A group in a conference room in Virginia messed up the communications rollout. So often, that’s a symptom of bigger reasons for concern.

Pick Your Mantra, Then Answer Journalists

Monday, July 3rd, 2017

Sometimes, journalists just can’t help themselves. Even when not in an interview, they ask questions that get you thinking.

Last week, one of our clients hosted journalist, author and educator John U. Bacon as a keynote speaker at a charity fundraising event. In conversation before his speech, Bacon asked me a terrific question. When it comes to crisis communication, what is my top piece of advice? He told me his first. After covering and writing about PR crises and speaking to companies across the country, he’s partial to the mantra of former University of Michigan Athletic Director Don Canham: “Never turn a one-day story into a two-day story.” Sound advice indeed.

I told him that in a crisis engagement, I typically start with, “If you don’t speak for yourself, others will gladly speak for you.”

answer-hiBoth pieces of advice were relevant in a recent week when two separate clients received inquiries from journalists and, remarkably, top executives had the same reaction, “Don’t respond.” To protect client confidentiality, I can’t write about the details of each case. But in both instances, the counsel back to them was the same. There is no upside whatsoever in not getting back to the reporters with, at least, something to say. In both cases, the client executives listened to counsel and allowed for responses that, with the benefit of hindsight, likely protected them against small crises. In one case, the journalist was able to be equipped with facts that prevented, or at least delayed, a story from being written. In the other case, the client’s message made it into the story to provide valuable context (it spoke for itself, so others wouldn’t be given the opportunity).

Was the instinct shared by two senior executives at two different organizations in two different parts of the country the reflection of any kind of trend, such as the anti-media rhetoric coming out of The White House? From the inside of both situations, it seems more coincidental than anything else. One executive was trained as a lawyer and many in that profession believe that not returning a media inquiry is a way to guarantee that you won’t say anything that will get held against you (even though it invites many other repercussions).

But as we start the second half of the year, it’s an opportunity to remember why there are multiple good reasons to make sure you don’t ignore inquiries from journalists. Take your pick – “Never turn a one-day story into a two-day story” or “If you don’t speak for yourself, others will gladly speak for you” or any other adage you think applies other than “Don’t respond.”

After Stunt, Will Journalists Keep Going Back To Calley?

Monday, June 5th, 2017

UnknownFor five weeks leading up to the Mackinac Policy Conference, Michigan’s Lieutenant Governor, Brian Calley, had journalists thinking he would announce his candidacy for Governor on May 30th, on the first day of the Conference.

All over social media, the Calley camp bought ads teasing “5.30.17.” In this interview with WJR’s Frank Beckmann on April 24th, Calley did nothing to refute the idea that that indeed would be the day he would announce.

Upon arriving in the island, Conference attendees were greeted, literally every few feet, by college-age barkers handing out invitations to the “major announcement” event, giving the island’s main drag a Las Vegas Strip feel. Multiple journalists arrived on the island early to be in place for what they expected to be the official beginning of the 2018 campaign. Instead, they were victims of a bait and switch stunt, burning them, along with other attendees who delayed registration for the Conference to file into a restaurant, expecting news to be made before their eyes.

Instead of announcing his candidacy, Calley, surrounded by the paid college-age staff, called for a plan to make Michigan’s Legislature part-time. With scripted chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” and “Clean It Up!” amid cries against “The Establishment” (the 7-year Lieutenant Governor previously served as a legislator, full-time), Calley held an event apparently only a political ringmaster could appreciate. Several journalists and attendees called it everything from “weird” to “a waste of time.”

This is yet another example of the difference between business and political PR. If a business hyped an announcement for five weeks, then switched it to appeal to a niche constituency rally, it wouldn’t get a second chance. But, in politics, some Roger Ailes wannabe is probably doing self back patting for getting a bunch of news coverage in one day to “help name recognition” and “fire up the base” while “creating a show.” Sooner or later, they are going to have to make the announcement the assembled media thought it was getting last week.

Begrudgingly, journalists will still cover the Calley announcement, whenever and wherever it happens. But will they forget about what happened on Mackinac? To quote the great PR analyst L.L. Cool J – I don’t think so.

PR’s Looming Crisis of Crediblity

Sunday, April 30th, 2017

crisis-ahead-road-sign-cloudy-sky-background-53806269In one of the most thought-provoking public conversations I’ve been a part of in recent years, the Public Relations Society of America’s Detroit Chapter invited me, along with Crain’s Detroit Business Publisher/Editor Ron Fournier and Finn Partners’ Taylar Koblyas, to sit on a panel last week, in front of a packed room on the campus of Wayne State University, entitled “The Role Of The PR Practitioner In The Era Of Fake News.”

We all agree that hoaxes have always been around, that provable facts haven’t always guided public opinion (see the flat Earth controversy of 1492) and that what makes today different is the speed and omnipresence of what looks like news in the palms of our hands. It’s true that news has trust issues today, which can hinder PR and its relationship with news.

In the midst of this, PR faces a looming crisis of credibility. We do not exist if not for our relationships, grounded in trust, with journalists and the audiences we work to reach. Right now, though, our actions threaten those relationships more than ever.

How can journalists trust us when, more often than ever, we won’t even talk to them? We encourage email “interviews” and push paper (in the form of statements) rather than people (human-to-human contact). We can’t build trust when we flood their inboxes with pitches and releases that we know would never be news in the current environment, rationalized by thinking “we’re casting a wide net” or so we can show clients and bosses “impressive” media lists, just to cover our rear ends.

How can the public trust us when all we say to our most important audiences is that the company is “Excited to leverage assets” or other corporate mumbo jumbo, written for our clients and bosses and not for our audiences? We need to revisit the concept of writing for the individual who approves our copy, rather than writing for the audience who is, more than ever, depending on the company to tell them what’s going on.

And then there’s this story – sent to me after the panel discussion. How can we be trusted to work with or provide information to anyone when those from our ranks bill a public school system $4.5 million over just three years for work? Any kind of work? The days of “charge the biggest number you can get away with until you’re fired” need to be over in order for the rest of us to be able to work with clients on the “need to have” services that will fulfill their most important objectives and provide the most value.

All of us in PR want the news business to be successful and credible in the eyes of our audiences. In order for that to happen, we have to be a part of the solution. But, on a day to day basis, we are too often a part of the problem.

You’re Never Just One ____ Away From Reputation Recovery

Sunday, April 23rd, 2017

Road_to_RecoveryIn attempting to guide an organization out of crisis, you’re never just one interview away. You’re never just one email away. You’re never just one op-ed away. You’re never just one “positive news story” away. You’re never just one tactic away from recovering from a crisis.

I hope that’s the takeaway from the keynote presentation, “Reputation Recovery,” I was privileged to give at last week’s “Age Of Polarization” conference on the campus of Central Michigan University, an impressive event organized by student members of the CMU PRSSA, in collaboration with the professional members of the White Pine Chapter of the PRSA. The conference touched on many of the most important challenges in today’s public relations business.

Taking this opportunity to share with a wider audience what I shared in person, recovering from a crisis takes an organized campaign. It requires a different mindset. Organizations must be in a different mode, led by PR, but shared within the entire organization. Crisis recovery happens incrementally, providing proof to audiences over and over again, in multiple different ways, that trust will be re-earned, mistakes will be corrected and a new course is being charted. That simply will not happen with a “check the one box” approach.

United Airlines is a recent case in point. Two weeks after the pulled-from-the-plane incident, United remains, at best, in a fragile reputational state. Its CEO, in the wake of the crisis, did a grand total of one TV interview. It was on Good Morning America, a show that can reach between 4-5 million viewers on TV and, and probably a large fraction of that online. But United flew more than 100 million passengers last year. How many of them saw that one interview? Or have been exposed to the company’s messaging at all?

A few years ago, I was working with a membership organization in crisis, which was damaged from the inside out. It would take months, at least, of open conversation for any healing to occur. A couple of board members called me one day and said “We know what we need to do. We’re working on an email.” I explained to them that with so much damage done, they are not just one email away from solving their problem. It would take a campaign, over time, to be able to move on from the crisis, which it ultimately did.

Just like in our individual lives, when something goes wrong, we need to reallocate time and priorities in order to fix it. A company or organization is no different. It takes effort, resources and teamwork to be able to work through and past tough times.

United Lawyers Are The Pilots While PR Appears Stuck In Coach

Monday, April 10th, 2017

MV5BNDU2MjE4MTcwNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDExOTMxMDE@._V1_UY1200_CR90,0,630,1200_AL_If you’ve been online before reading this, you’ve seen the video of the paying customer being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight after what’s known in the airline business as “an involuntary bumping.” You’ve seen the response, attributed to the CEO, calling what happened a effort to “re-accommodate” the passenger.

As someone who cut my teeth in PR by handling media relations for a global airline client in the midst of multiple and frequent crises, I often hear from contacts when they wonder why airlines do what they do. The texts came my way often today, from professionals within communications:

“United seriously needs a PR firm.”

I’m sure they have one. At least one. I’m sure they have one of the biggest and most expensive firms on the planet on a retainer worth more money than some entire agencies bill in a year and that the account is extremely staffed. They were shrewd enough to get the company’s CEO named PRWeek Communicator of the Year just last month, for what that’s worth.

“That statement was pretty terrible.”

Yes it was. I would have hated to have been in the conference rooms or on the email chains where it was being hashed out.

“They respond by telling media to speak with law enforcement authorities?”

That’s what happens when the lawyers are in charge.

Meanwhile, to borrow a line from the movie “Airplane,” the corporate communications department “picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.”

This appears to be another example of the tug of war seen inside organizations in times of adversity. I tend to give PR departments the benefit out the doubt. They tend to know what to say and how to say it. But so many times, they’re not able to because the lawyers are running the show. Too often, executives not affiliated with either department side with legal counsel because it feels “safe.” Right now, for United, traditional and social media are anything but. In these cases, PR gets stuck with trying to clean up the mess from the parade rather than leading it.

We live in a culture where there seems to be an “outrage of the day.” It could be argued that, by tomorrow, there will probably be something replacing this incident in the public consciousness. But there are a few factors here that can’t be ignored. First, United is a repeat offender. There was the leggings incident just a few weeks ago. And remember the “United Breaks Guitars” phenomenon several years ago? Also, travelers are emotional consumers with long memories. We all know people who tell stories about delays and cancelled flights for years to anyone who will listen. Airline issues strike a chord. It’s an industry Americans love to hate. Take it from someone who worked with an airline that was shut down during a pilots’ strike, then months later, operational dysfunction led to planes landing in a Detroit blizzard where some sat for 8 hours waiting for gates to be cleared.

The thing about what happened to United and what has happened to other airlines is that the incidents in question are not inherently PR problems. They are internal issues that cause PR problems. And they are generally reflective of culture. If United board members and executives really care about their audiences, awards aside, they will make PR an integral part of corporate culture. As of now, “thou shalt protect thyself from litigation” appears to be the singular guiding commandment.

Before Sears Disappears, Catalog Your PR

Sunday, March 26th, 2017

Sears_1969_logoNews this past week that Sears may have trouble staying in business beyond the immediate future shouldn’t make you think of just retail. It should also get you thinking about your business.

If when you heard the news about Sears you thought “Sears? Are they still around?,” you weren’t alone. And if you have anything to say about the communications and marketing where you work, you should consider that question the worst case scenario for your business, whether it’s a professional services firm, a nonprofit organization, a manufacturer, a health care entity or even a media company. Examples on a weekly basis prove that the key to business success is relevance.

PR strategy conversations with clients have changed significantly over the last decade. It used to be “How can we get you media attention?” Now, it’s “How can we help you stay in front of your audiences?” Sometimes, that includes news coverage, if situations warrant. But, always, it’s about communicating to audiences proactively about who you are, what you do and how you’re different, in a variety of ways, across multiple platforms. Think about what you’re doing. If it’s like Sears, just being there at the end of the mall hoping customers would come in while resting on the historical value of your brand, that’s just not going to work.

Business challenges don’t develop overnight. Don’t believe those who tell you that Amazon alone is forcing Sears out of business. Sears has been in this spiral for decades. Personally, I haven’t set foot in one of their stores in more than 20 years, after an all-time customer service debacle about which nobody from the company seemed to care. When we walk into organizations suffering reputation challenges, it’s rarely just “one thing” that causes a situation. Often, brands are the victims of collective negligence. When merely surviving becomes a top priority, things like service and PR just don’t get done and cause the company increasing levels of harm.

“I didn’t know you were still in business” is something you never want your audiences to say. Communicate to them, engage with them and that’s something you’ll never have to hear.

Think Differently When Bad News Hits A Nonprofit

Sunday, March 19th, 2017

crisis-006Generally speaking, those who don’t work in PR or media aren’t particularly interested in what we do, with one notable exception. When something goes wrong, they become very curious.

It’s always interesting to take questions when speaking about crisis communications, whether it’s to a college class, an Optimist Club, a PR conference or a business group. Recently, I had the chance to present to a group of nonprofit leaders convened by the Plante Moran accounting firm on the campus of Lawrence Technological University. Several dozen attended but, reverting to the mentality of their college lecture days, all but very few sat in the back rows of the big auditorium.

When bad news strikes a nonprofit organization, the priorities are often different. Never was this more clear than a situation I helped with a few years ago when a prominent religious organization fired a longtime member of its clergy. The Board Chair’s husband, a corporate executive, had a relationship with a PR firm that worked primarily with manufacturing companies. The Chair and the firm drafted and then sent a letter to members and, despite the fact that this was a deeply emotional situation, it had the level of charm and compassion that only an employment lawyer could embrace. To say the communication fell flat would be an understatement. It helped create misunderstanding and discord that escalated to crisis.

When Board members came to see us for a “second opinion,” we offered a much different approach. Without getting into the complex details (it was a doozy, to say the least), we ended up taking a path, that was ultimately successful, including candor, listening and respect for the organization’s mission. The takeaway here is that for a nonprofit organization to survive “bad news,” the situation must be managed through a different lens than with a corporation or certainly a political scenario. There’s much more to this than can be covered in a blog post and thanks to Plante Moran and Lawrence Tech, you can watch the entire presentation (less than 30 minutes) and the one hour of live Q&A that followed (it was a really good group).

To watch the presentation in its entirety, click here. Spoiler Alert: I don’t rhetorically ask “Right?” after attempting to make a bold point, even once. Thank you for taking a look.

Fake News: It’s Not A Real Epidemic

Sunday, March 12th, 2017

unnamedWe got an email this week from a respected college professor putting together a PR conference. The question was simple, “Do you know of anybody willing to talk about being bitten by fake news?”

The answer, from our end, was also simple. We don’t. That is because there is no “epidemic of fake news” in the day-to-day world of PR.

To explain, let us please agree on the definition of “fake news.” What we are talking about in this post is the disguising of fictional content, using familiar people’s names, on websites that look like news sights but are created just to spread this fiction. It what, before the ease of sharing websites via social media, were called “hoaxes” or “urban legends.” We used to see this kind of stuff in the grocery store checkout lines in tabloids (the Weekly World News often featured front page “stories” about politicians and aliens) or, from our friends (who could talk to us even before Facebook), like when those of us of a certain age heard that Mikey from the Life cereal commercials died after mixing Pop Rocks candy with some sort of carbonated beverage.

What we are not talking about here is news coverage from a bona fide, commercially viable, familiarly-named outlet that does not paint the sitting President of the United States in a favorable light, in his opinion. We are also not talking about news coverage that includes errors in reporting.

Now that we have that straight, you can begin to understand the answer we gave the professor. The “fake news epidemic” has been limited to national politics. That has been the focal point of news consumption since last year and that is what is driving clicks online. That is where there is money to be made and attention to be had by the fraudsters online. This is not a phenomenon that is seriously impacting day-to-day business in the rest of the country. That is not to suggest that some sort of fabricated item that looks like news couldn’t show up online about the place where you work or a company with which you do business. The potential is there but the reality is not.

This is similar to the “supermarket tabloid” heyday. There was much more of a chance of a “fake” story about Carol Burnett getting drunk and getting into a verbal altercation with Henry Kissinger in The National Enquirer (that happened, resulting in a lawsuit) than anything about anyone not a celebrity. The reason is simple – celebrities (and diet tips) have always moved paper in grocery store lines, the way stories about the President and politics drive clicks now.

In every community in the country at certainly at the national level, both the news and PR businesses are facing some serious issues and challenges. But, for the vast majority of us, today, this just is not one of them.

How “The Trump Factor” Affects Your PR

Sunday, February 26th, 2017

pie-chart1It was going to be tough enough to try to get media attention in 2017. The news workforce is smaller, yet again, than it was last year. A new administration in The White House always takes its share of news coverage in every level, as change is explored widely. But this year, if you work in or with PR, consider how “The Trump Factor” means a smaller piece of a shrinking pie for everyone else.

Almost no matter what type of PR you work in, it’s more of a challenge than ever to get coverage without a “Trump angle,” or at least a government/politics angle. It’s the pervasive conversation in our country and in our current events discourse now and for the foreseeable future. Also, news consumers are eating it up. Don’t listen to those who say they’re sick of it and staying away. From everything we hear from those who monitor analytics inside news organizations, the bump in news content consumption that started during the election season has not waned. The most successful pitch efforts many days will include at least a nugget to get the politically hungry something to chew on.

Depending on your point of view, the current President is either an insatiable seeker of attention in the world’s most high-profile job or an intriguing personality making waves by affecting change. Even if you’re somewhere in between, you can’t deny that he has attracted more attention (or diverted it) in ways never seen before. The fact is there will be less attention for whatever your organization thinks it deserves.

If you work in PR, you should be having an honest conversation with your clients or your bosses about the news realities, which have changed even more in the last few weeks. What you thought may have been news in your 2017 planning may not be news anymore, or at least maybe not in the same way. It may be time to think about other ways of reaching your audiences with your messages. Or it may be time to determine your organization’s government/politics angle, based on how proposed or enacted policies affect you (it doesn’t have to mean taking sides, but it could).

What you can’t do is pretend this isn’t happening. Sure, there are morning TV slow slots for in-studio features. There’s still the sports section. There are exceptions. But, by and large, unless you have journalists assigned to covering your business or your industry who are separate from those who cover government and policy, for now, at least, this is likely your reality.