Archive for October, 2014

It Doesn’t Have To Take 14 People, $782k For Crisis PR

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

imagesAnytime there’s a news story about PR agency fees, it can’t be good. And the latest story paints PR firms as greedy, overcharging, budget-sucking wastes of money.

Here’s the story from the Raleigh News and Observer about how much the University of North Carolina has spent on a global firm that threw a bunch of bodies on a crisis project, billing what would be the annual revenue of a robust small to medium firm in just a few months.

To be fair, that’s the size of a small national advertising campaign. Also, I’m reasonably certain the firm did deliver some results. I was able to see a communication sent from the UNC Athletic Department to alumni after the investigation findings were announced and it was an impressive piece of communication – candid, straightforward and comforting. But make no mistake, it does not take 14 people and $782,000 to manage a crisis.

In the late ’90s, I was part of a team that managed communications during a significant client crisis. Three of us worked on the business and in a full year, we billed probably around $200,000 (keep in mind, there has been some fee deflation since then). We achieved results and built long-term relationships on the client side. And that was, by any definition, a huge undertaking.

Today, we are frequently asked to work with clients of all sizes on crisis management and recovery projects. Don and/or I lead those projects frequently. We wouldn’t even know what to do with 14 people. Sometimes, we are able to help clients via short-term engagements that wouldn’t raise a single auditor’s eyebrow. Then again, we don’t have the overhead of the global firms, nor their billing mandates.

Please let me reassure you that this UNC work is on the high end, nationally, of cost and resources. There is absolutely no reason to think that that is what it necessarily takes, for an organization of any size, to communicate during or after an adverse situation. Hire a nimble, experienced, cost-consicous firm and you can get counsel, results and value at the same time.

From Madness to Method in Adversity Management

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 12.13.44 PMIn recent days and weeks, a lot of high profile parties have been apologizing.  The NFL in the wake of the domestic violence scandal; Dallas’ Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital amid the Ebola crisis; Microsoft’s CEO comments on equality of pay for women.  The best recipe to avoid apologizing? Doing the right thing in the first place. And, if not: having a crisis communications strategy in place and ready to go.

No matter the crisis, no matter the situation, no matter the company, adversity is best managed when dealt with immediately and resolutely. First and foremost, that means having a crisis communications team and plan in place. That team should be nimble and include top management and public relations professionals who are instantly reachable and accessible 24-7.  Importantly, any action plan should consider all potential audiences that may be affected and should be communicated to – internally and externally.

Time is always of the essence in issuing reassurances and demonstrating corrective action. Just consider recent predicaments in pro and college sports and questions related to who knew what and when.  When handling a crisis, those involved must look ahead and take the long view; putting themselves in others’ shoes and then act in the best interests of their constituents first.  Let me provide an example.

In a recent week, Tanner Friedman was retained to handle a crisis related to the criminal behavior of a coach for a local youth sports team.  The investigation was well under way when we came on board and would soon lead to formal charges being announced.  However, one of the agencies involved in the police matter was not sure when they would be ready to officially announce the matter publicly. Could we wait to make any formal announcements?  Our answer: Absolutely not.

As it would not at all compromise police work, our top concern was for the kids and their parents.  The coach was immediately dismissed and the parents communicated to virtually same day.  Weren’t they owed that? Can you imagine waiting days or weeks until a press conference was held, timed no doubt to pump up the particular official in charge, to make that information known to these fathers and mothers? ‘When did you know?’ ‘Why weren’t we told sooner?’ ‘What action was taken? When?’ Those questions would have been far, wide and loud – and rightly so.

Our client and their legal counsel agreed and acted accordingly and appropriately. And, while the news was painful, the parents appreciated knowing in a timely manner.

In the world of adversity management, tenets of communication you have heard us tout before – honesty, transparency, integrity – are vital in relaying what happened, why and when.  They then provide the foundation for rebuilding trust, repairing reputation and living another day.



Bright Careers on the “Dark Side”

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 8.05.58 PMI’ll always remember interviewing a locally-based reporter who was working at the Detroit Bureau of a national news outlet. “I can’t believe I’m considering coming over to the dark side,” he commented on the possibility of moving from media into public relations.  Today, many years later, he is a prominent and respected PR lead for a top automotive OEM, having successfully made the transition from the one telling the stories to the one pitching them.

Once not as common, reporters moving from media to public relations/communications has been a fairly consistent occurrence over the past decade.  And it’s happening more and more every day. This past week, Robin Schwartz announced she was leaving Fox-2 after 17 years with the station to join Bedrock as their PR Director.  Similarly, longtime WDET-Radio anchor Craig Fahle exited the studio for the Detroit Land Bank as Communications Director while weatherman/TV legend Chuck Gaidica traded the set for the pulpit in August.

As someone who also made the switch from radio to PR (in 1994), I have observed the shifts in attitudes and job titles firsthand.  The tipping point was the Detroit newspaper strike of 1995.  Before the strike, quite often I experienced long-time reporters with no respect for the public relations professional. “I don’t need some snot-nosed kid to tell me what’s news,” I heard more than once.  And while, unfortunately, many of these same writers would ultimately lose their jobs, those taking their place were largely green and without source contacts. They understood immediately how I could assist with access to top sources that would help them in identifying new stories and trends.  An attitudinal shift followed.  Media and PR, once demonstrating mutual respect, would become collaborators rather than typecast adversaries.

With stigmas pushed aside, many reporters and writers through the years to today have made the logical move to communications. After all, who better to know how to package and pitch news stories and information to media outlets and other audiences?  As important in such moves is the quality of life factor.  Matt and I both tired of working early morning, late nights and weekends in our on-air roles. TV personalities in particular work 3p-11p when at the top of their game.

But the theme you hear most often when talking to former media talent who have opted away from the bright lights and notoriety? A desire at a certain point in life to do something more. More rewarding. More difference-making. More family-friendly. In the case of Schwartz and Fahle, in particular, the opportunity to be a part of Detroit’s resurgence was no doubt too good to pass up. For Gaidica, a higher-calling to preach trumped reporting on low pressure systems.

Bottom line for media and PR practitioners: We are all professionals dedicated to telling stories and communicating effectively, strategically, truthfully.  No dark sides. Only transparency.



What “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” Can Teach You About PR

Monday, October 13th, 2014

5753449_stdNever mind that someone invited me to a daylong conference (cost, $75) to hear local PR and branding people speak. That didn’t even bother me as much as what was on the flyer. One of the speakers promises “The Secret Sauce Of Media Relations” in a presentation.

It instantly reminded me of a scene from the ’80s classic movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” One of the main characters, Brad Hamilton, is training a new employee at fictional fast food joint All-American Burger and is asked “What’s the secret sauce?” The answer: “Thousand Island dressing.” We then find out that the “secret sauce” at rival Bronco Burger is “ketchup and mayonnaise.”

I then took to Twitter to find out what some journalists think about the suggestion that there might be such as thing as a “secret sauce” to working with them. One instantly responded “Ew.” Another responded like this: “Returns calls ASAP, be honest and fair, give us the info, provide scoops, know cycles/needs/competitors. Done.”

In other words, use good judgment, good fundamentals and show professionalism and mutual respect. Remember that relationships work two ways and put yourself in the “shoes” of the pro on the other side of the call, email or text. And when you’re talking to a journalist, it’s not on your time, it’s on, as Mr. Hand from “Fast Times” might put it, it’s on, from the journalist’s point of view, “my time.”

Just like at the movie fast food places, it’s not that complicated. And it’s no secret at all.

Want Local Coverage? Get In Line.

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

line_up_technicians1Recently, I was asked by a longtime businessman why a client of ours isn’t “sending out more press releases so the newspapers can use those stories as filler.” I had to take a deep breath and explain that the media world has changed, since whenever that concept was planted in his brain. In short, news outlets certainly don’t need “filler” anymore.

In fact, most local news outlets have more than they could possibly cover. It became as obvious as ever today, as yet another “high profile” murder trial began around here, that there is a pecking order and to assure coverage, your story had better fall into it or you are put at the back of a long line.

Many years ago, at the dawn of the PC era, a news director of mine called crime coverage the “default setting” of broadcast news. Many days, that’s still the case. How many resources does local news have left after it’s done covering “cops and courts?” Throw in election year politics and sports and, jobs news in a market like Detroit with a dominant industry, and what’s left to cover you in an era of very few journalists on payrolls? Many days, it’s not much.

A few weeks ago, we had to explain to a prospective client why we couldn’t help them with a project. They wanted some weekend events covered by TV news in a rural corner of the market. I had to explain, in these words, “Each station has one crew to cover all of the news in a market of 4 million people during the day on weekends. How can they be expected to send that crew to your township and then miss what could be the lead story happening anywhere else in a six county area?” That helped drive home the point. Chances are, most weekends, that lead story will be a crime, or fire, or car accident not too far from the TV stations. It’s just a fact we have to work around.

There are many options for storytelling and brand building on the days when there’s just no room for you in typical local news coverage. It takes a whole new way of thinking to cut the line.