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    Tuesday, December 30, 2008

    No Comment

    Various companies have different approaches to dealing with negative press. I knew of one large international company that was in the habit of refusing to discuss anything negative in the public arena. Its standard line was ‘we do not indulge the discussion of rumours’.
    Another company took to fervently defending itself, to the point of implicating others (a la ‘you are wrong we have never treated our staff unfairly, unlike such and such who is renowned for it..’)
    My favourite approach, at least on the entertainment scale, is the ‘no comment’ one; I actually sat through an analyst meeting with a CMO who intermittently replied to perfectly benign questions with ‘no comment’ because he didn’t know the answer.
    The effective handling of negative media is a fundamental element of maintaining a long term positive profile; even the shining stars of the business world can’t please very single customer all of the time and with the countless avenues available to people who wish to express their views, proper handling strategies are not to be ignored. There are a few basic tips for navigating those occasional unflattering comments brought forward during media interviews.
    Believe it or not, the company in my first scenario was onto something; it’s not helpful to indulge rumours and engage in an all out public bun fight. But at the same time, it’s not wise to churn out the same unhelpful statement time after time as an obvious blocking strategy, journalists will simply go elsewhere for the information and you won’t even get a say.
    Instead, if you are about to be interviewed and you are anticipating a negative comment, prepare a response beforehand that addresses the facts only and doesn’t lend weight to untruths or exaggerations. Explain that there has been some rumour mongering and these are the facts and this is what your company is doing to address those. Don’t be drawn into speculation, simply stick to the facts and firmly state your commitment to dealing with them. Use the opportunity to underline your core company values. If you’re careful not to stray from what you have prepared, your statement will be clear and reassuring to customers.
    On the other hand, if you weren’t anticipating the question you can explain that you are presently investigating the best options for addressing the issue at hand. Do look into them as a matter of urgency though and do respond immediately after the interview; dropping the ball will only reflect badly. During TV interviews, be sure to explain where interested parties will be able to go to find updates (e.g. the company website).
    Avoid ‘no comment’ at all costs; at best it’s hostile and it can even be perceived as an admission of liability. Basically, this is a response that belongs on criminal investigation TV shows.
    Always present an open and helpful face and never respond with disparaging remarks about the competition, they won’t help you to gain the respect of your customers. Alternatively, the efforts you make to elevate the impression of your company are likely to reap significant rewards.
    It goes without saying that a large-scale crisis requires a well-planned approach to crisis management, however the occasional negative episode needn’t bring the business down if handled thoughtfully and with the customer’s needs in mind (because in the end they’re what business is all about, right?)

    Friday, December 12, 2008

    No blankets’s cold

    As a PR consultant I sometimes help out companies without a PR department that have issued a piece of company news under their own steam and are seeking advice on how to maximise its impact. Invariably I’m passed a list of email addresses and almost without exception there are a great many contacts that are not relevant.

    Blanket mailing to a complete list of journals in a certain sector is quick and easy to do, right? You just add all the names into the ‘BCC’ field and hit go. Wrong, it's plain cold and impersonal. In reality it’s not a genuine time saver and guess what, it’s just irritating for the publications that have to sift through the information that they couldn’t possibly use to find the good stuff (some publications don’t even accept unaddressed email).

    It’s been said a million times before, but I really think it can stand to be repeated; in my opinion, blanket mailing simply doesn’t give a good piece of news its best chance.

    The fact is, indiscriminate email blasts are becoming a thing of the past, especially in light of the growing and widely varying number of online publications and blogs; a targeted approach is a must. How many publications do you know that all require the exact same angle for their readership? The chances are, the time you save in blanket mailing you will spend in follow ups, if you haven’t taken the time to pitch correctly to your target media in the first place.

    Here’s what I suggest. Take that list of 50 publications and turn it into a top tier list of far fewer, perhaps your magic number will be ten, or maybe even only one or two. Take the time to know those publications inside out: who reads them, who writes for them, what similar articles they have featured recently, what sections they carry, what type of material makes the news pages and so forth. Work out why your information is interesting to that particular publication and then track down the most appropriate section editor or journalist (maybe the general news desk is the right contact, if the news is genuinely relevant it will find its way out of the newsdesk inbox.

    Prepare variations of the same news that bring out different aspects of the story. For example, if you know a publication is interested in new products, prepare a product release that dives into the great features and functionality of the new product. But if you know another publication is more interested in the potential impact on users, create a news release geared towards discussing those issues instead (keep it factual).

    Perhaps you will find that you are only able to get one all-purpose version approved by corporate head quarters; in this case you can always head your email with a brief explanation as to exactly why your news might appeal to the target audience. The idea in each case is for a journalist to be able to glance at what you send them and know within a couple of lines what is newsworthy for them. Or for bloggers to instantly know what it is about the information you are passing before them that is likely to appeal, more importantly assist their community.

    Another tip is to have spokespeople waiting in the sidelines to offer commentary (these should not only be from the company issuing the news, but also from other relevant industry parties where possible). And, have a selection of good quality images ready to fulfil any request for accompanying photos.

    That said, there are occasions when a piece of news is clearly of general interest and getting it out there as quickly and as early as possible is beneficial to both the issuing company and the media. I certainly don’t mean to devalue news distribution services here; there are some high quality establishments of that genre. What I am saying is don’t be tempted to rely on general distribution as your sole strategy for sharing news, the one-to-many approach is dated and unlikely to carry you far; a little leg work up front will get you a lot further.

    Monday, November 24, 2008

    I'll let you into a secret, I don't believe in PR

    I’ll let you into a secret; I don’t believe in PR
    It used to infuriate me to hear that from a client…I was wrong to feel that way, but we’ll get to that later.
    Typical scenario: I have been retained to provide PR services by the country manager, who reports to a corporate manager in the head office; that’s the person who doesn’t believe in PR.
    The country manager has fought for the right to do some reputation building and promote the company’s services locally, as the competitors are doing. The corporate manager agrees because it’s important to the country manager, but he’s not on board, far from it. He wants to know exactly how many sales leads have been generated by each announcement to the press. He wants to find out which customers chose the company brand specifically because of media coverage and then he wants to measure that against the cost of advertising to find out if he could have got more bang for his buck elsewhere.
    As I said, I used to tire of pointing out that reputation building doesn’t work that way…in life or in business!
    Take a store scenario. The store manager knows the importance of customer service. She understands that if her employees are pleasant, courteous and helpful to the customers they will come back. Maybe their friends will come. Perhaps the word will pass around that it’s a great place to shop and people will come from afar. What she doesn’t do is ask each customer ‘how much will you spend because I just smiled at you and told you to have a really great day? Exactly how much was that smile worth to me?’
    The message is the same one PR professionals have been repeating since the dawn of, well PR: a positive reputation is enormously valuable to business. You cannot measure it activity by activity but you absolutely will see the results develop over time.
    That’s why I used to get irritated when I found myself up against someone who, in my mind, was almost actively willing PR to fail to prove their convictions (and fail it will, if you disregard the advice you are paying to receive).
    However, more recently (and not before time) I started to view this category of client in a different way. I began to ask myself why they were so anti-PR. Up until then I had focused purely on how inconvenient it was for me to have to deal, without really asking myself why I had found myself in this situation in the first place. Maybe there was something lacking in MY approach!
    The logical answer is they have a misconception of the principles of PR. Perhaps they bundle it with advertising and measure it with the same yardstick, leading to unrealistic expectations. Perhaps they have previously had a bad experience with a PR provider that really didn’t deliver any value and that is what they’ve come to expect. Perhaps they simply don’t know what to expect (the workings of PR are still one of the business world’s best kept secrets, I find. Just tell someone at a party that you are a PR consultant and watch their eyes go blank as they decide whether it’s appropriate to admit that they don’t know what on earth that entails. Or better still, ask them what they think it entails, the responses can be incredibly entertaining, ranging from ‘people paid to lie for politicians’ to ‘professional groupies’, or ‘is that even a real job? ’)
    Anyway, the upshot is, if your client is, shall we say, reluctant, they are probably misinformed and YOU have some work to do in addressing this issue BEFORE embarking on a campaign, them in tow scraping their heels and resisting all the way.
    My suggestion would be to sit down with them and talk through what you are planning to do for them. Maybe they’ll be open to a conference room meeting where you can support your conversation with presentation slides. Or maybe it’s more appropriate to invite them to a casual ‘getting to know you better’ lunch. But I promise you, the time and money you invest here will pay dividends in the long run on both sides, in terms of campaign success and relationship longevity. Here are some pointers that work for me:
    • Clarify the purpose of PR, and don’t just tell them what it is, go to the trouble of preparing examples of successful PR campaigns (both your own and also companies you admire that obviously have the PR machine running smoothly for them)
    • Outline clearly what you intend to do for them. I mean really discuss the potential knock on effects of the PR activities you have lined up on a case by case basis; this is often only briefly touched upon at pitch stage and can easily get lost among the mass of logistical information that is bandied about in the beginning
    • Give a clear timeline for results; if a client is expecting to see 20 new leads arise from one press release, encourage them to take a long term view at measuring the increase in customer interest over six months, or even better a year
    • Also demonstrate that you have a long term plan and that you are prepared for the next phase once the first objectives have been achieved in terms of reputation shaping. Show them that you are travelling with them and you know the course; that you are not simply winging it from activity to activity
    • Show them case study testimonials of successful similar campaigns and offer to put them in contact with clients willing to chat with them about their experiences
    • Plan to have a review discussion with them periodically, to bring to light any positive developments that can be linked to PR and to give them the confidence that you are still in control and steering their campaign.
    Of course it’s easier to retain a client who already loves PR and just jump right in to doing what you do best, but take it from me, there is little more rewarding in the PR business than changing someone’s perception through delivering over and above what they ever expected.